THE RUSSIAN armed forces bomb and shell Chechen villages until their inhabitants die or flee; then soldiers move in and loot the emptied houses. This is the conclusion of a new Human Rights Watch report based on numerous interviews with refugees and eyewitnesses. Soldiers drive military vehicles to houses and load them with televisions, blankets, pillows, refrigerators -- even floorboards and window frames. One 43-year-old woman said she left her village of Assinovskaia Oct. 7 and returned Nov. 18 to find her home stripped of "all dishes, bedding, canned goods and other food supplies, as well as the television and VCR," Human Rights Watch reported. A soldier was standing in the main room pulling out of the wall an electrical outlet that she herself had installed. When she asked for an explanation, the soldier replied, "I need it."
In many ways, Russia had more justification for its intervention in Chechnya than Slobodan Milosevic had in Kosovo. The Chechens had given offense by condoning, or at least failing to control, incursions from their territory into neighboring provinces of Russia. In several years of quasi-independence, Chechen authorities also had failed to control such an epidemic of kidnappings and murder that outsiders dared not travel to their realm. They had failed their own people most of all, by not taking advantage of a brief peace to build any kind of normal life.
But whatever sympathy Russia therefore might have enjoyed for its campaign it has squandered with methods that echo all too familiarly those of Mr. Milosevic. Not only the looting, but also the indiscriminate shelling of civilians; the creation and mistreatment of hundreds of thousands of refugees; and, according to sketchy accounts, the abuse of prisoners and suspected "terrorists" -- all this goes far beyond what might have been justified by difficult circumstances.
So far, the war is popular inside Russia; the press is given little access to the war zone and reports even less on the misery of the Chechens cowering in their basements or in makeshift tents. But neither the government nor the military seems to have a long-term strategy, unless you count the depopulation of Chechnya. Now Russian troops have encircled the capital of Grozny and warned all civilians to leave; what is left of the place apparently will be destroyed. And then what? No one seems to have thought that far ahead.