Moscow Gears Up for a New Chechnya War

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Russia may be planning another bloody war in Chechnya, and it wants Washington’s backing. Moscow sent its air force to bomb the airport in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Thursday, and massed some 13,000 troops on the rebellious state’s border. At the same time, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claimed U.S. support for his efforts, alleging that terrorist financier Osama bin Laden is behind the unrest in the Caucasus and the recent spate of apartment bombings. "The U.S. has expressed support for Russia’s fight against domestic terrorism, but it may find itself in a tight spot if Moscow goes to war with Chechnya in the name of that fight," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "It’s too early to tell whether this is just bluff and bluster, but even then it could boomerang on Moscow –- the bombing of Grozny airport is unlikely to go unanswered."

War talk and speculation has reached fever pitch in Russia, amid the climate of panic generated by the recent apartment bombings. The authorities announced Thursday that police in the southern city of Ryazan had defused a massive bomb in an apartment building after residents reported seeing sacks unloaded from a truck with a covered number plate. But, says Meier, later in the day it emerged that the "bomb" was merely a pile of sacks of sugar. The bombs that are falling in Chechnya, however, are all too real –- and Moscow may be on the verge of lurching back into its worst military debacle since Afghanistan.