Tiptoeing to War in Chechnya

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The problem with brinkmanship is you have to know where the brink is. Although it wants to keep its confrontation with Chechnya limited to air strikes, Moscow is in danger of lurching right back into the quagmire of three years ago. Russia rolled tanks up to the border Tuesday and bombed the rebel republic for the sixth consecutive day, as tens of thousands of refugees poured out of Chechnya. The Kremlin vowed to stamp out the Islamic rebels it holds responsible for a wave of terrorist bomb attacks on apartment buildings throughout Russia, and has accused the Chechen government of aiding the rebels. But despite the air campaign, Moscow is reluctant to resume the 1994-96 conflict that claimed at least 80,000 lives and muddied the reputation of the once-mighty Russian military. And with good reason: Russia failed to subdue the Chechens last time around, and there's no reason to believe they'd succeed now. But, says TIME Moscow bureau chief Paul Quinn-Judge, "there's tremendous pressure on the government to do something about the 'bandits' who are blamed for the apartment bombings."

Much of the pressure to act comes from within Moscow's political class, with new prime minister Vladimir Putin making his vow to deal firmly with the rebels the centerpiece of his campaign for next year's presidential election. "The Kremlin is certainly using this crisis to paint the not-very-striking Putin to look like presidential material," says Quinn-Judge. The former KGB officer on Monday firmly rejected a call by Chechnya's President Aslan Maskhadov for political dialogue with Moscow, instead moving armor to the border. But despite their anger at the bombings, Russian voters may balk at another bruising infantry campaign in Chechnya. And, of course, the Chechens may not allow Moscow the luxury of making war from a distance.