An Ambush Highlights Russian Dilemma

The savaging of an armored column outside Grozny shows that the Chechen capital won't fall without a fight. Can Moscow afford the casualties?

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Forget what you saw; it never happened. Though Western news agencies on Wednesday counted more than 100 slain Russian soldiers amid the wreckage of seven tanks and eight armored personnel carriers in a Grozny plaza — and Russian military sources conceded off the record that they'd lost at least 50 men in a botched assault on the Chechen capital — Russia's defense ministry insisted Thursday that there had been no tank attack on the besieged city, and that reports of the ambush were a deliberate lie by the West designed to demoralize Russians. The denial is hardly surprising, since Moscow's primary political consideration in this war has been to pulverize the Chechens without taking the heavy casualties that turned its 1994-1996 effort into a humiliating defeat and a domestic political disaster. "Now everyone’s waiting for the video, because the Chechens usually record these things," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "After today’s denials, a video showing the ambush did occur could prove embarrassing to Russia’s generals."

Sanitized TV reports suggesting Russian forces were getting the job done cleanly and efficiently have nurtured a gung ho public attitude toward the war, which has turned Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a matter of months from a bureaucratic nobody to the front-runner in next year's presidential race. "The plan may have been for Putin to fly down and raise the Russian flag over Grozny on the eve of Sunday’s parliamentary elections," says Meier. "But if reports of the ambush prove true, that could throw a spanner in the works. In fact, if the Chechens have such a tape, they may hold onto it for a couple of days to achieve maximum political effect."

The reported debacle underscores Moscow's dilemma over Grozny. Seizing the capital now would be an important symbolic victory — potentially exorcising the ghost of 1994, even though most of the Chechen forces have not been destroyed and have simply retreated into the mountains — but despite weeks of relentless pounding of the city with bombs, rockets and shells, the Chechens clearly remain able to inflict heavy casualties once they get the Russians at close quarters. That, combined with Western alarm at the fact that thousands of civilians remain trapped in the city, makes an all-out assault on Grozny politically risky. It also makes plausible denials a tempting option for the Russian military's media flacks.