Russians Appear Headed into a Chechen Bear Trap

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Half a league, half a league, half a league onward... Flushed with their success in capturing Chechnya’s northern plains, Russian troops Friday pressed forward their offensive south of the Terek River with their sights firmly set on a triumphant march into Grozny, the Chechen capital. But they could be heading into a trap. "The Chechens are well-armed and well-organized, and they’re just waiting for the Russians to come onto more favorable terrain," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "They haven’t made much effort to resist Moscow’s offensive on the northern flatlands, where they’re vulnerable to the Russians’ superior firepower and air support. But they’ll give the Russians a fierce fight in the mountains and forests across the river."

Despite Moscow’s best efforts to avoid repeating its 1994-96 debacle in Chechnya, its campaign appears to lack coordination and coherence. "This has disaster written all over it," says Meier. "It’s the wrong time of year to be getting drawn into an offensive, and Moscow has rebuffed attempts at negotiation by Chechen president Mashkadov, who remains the territory’s most credible moderate leader. It looks as if there’s very little coordination among Russia’s political leaders and its generals, and there’s no long-term strategy evident." To be sure, analysts agree that a battle for Grozny would lead to massive casualties on both sides. "And even if they capture it, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to hold it," says Meier. The Chechens, after all, are traditionally a guerrilla force, and they’re at their best fighting against a lumbering army of occupation. Sound like Afghanistan all over again? "Actually," says Meier, "it sounds like Chechnya all over again."