Russia has denied reports of the botched tank raid, accusing Western news agencies of fabricating a deliberate propaganda effort. "Now everyone's waiting for the video, because the Chechens usually record these things," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "After Moscow's denials, a video showing the ambush did occur could prove embarrassing to Russia's generals." It would prove even more embarrassing to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has built his political reputation almost exclusively on the Chechnya campaign. "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 wrench in the works." Once Sunday's elections are over, Russia may be more inclined to seek a political solution. Seizing Grozny is, after all, primarily of symbolic importance, since most of the Chechen rebel forces have retreated intact into the mountains. But Putin may not want to still have his army deployed in a hostile guerrilla environment six months from now when he goes to the electorate to seek the presidency.
The latest round of Western hand-wringing looks unlikely to stop Russia's Chechnya campaign particularly since it's not backed up by any credible threat. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned Friday that the U.S. was "reviewing" loans to Russia as she joined G7 foreign ministers and her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in Berlin for talks on the crisis. But President Clinton last week emphasized Washington's belief that sanctions are an inappropriate response to the Chechnya situation, and Moscow isn't likely to lose any sleep over the latest warnings. Having reportedly lost an armored column in a botched assault on Grozny Wednesday, Russian forces continued relentlessly shelling the Chechen capital Friday.