Although the early phases of the campaign in which Russian losses were minimal due to a heavy-bombardment strategy earned then-prime minister Putin unprecedented popularity for a neophyte government official, fierce Chechen resistance has slowed Moscow's momentum and raised the specter of heavy Russian casualties. That could pose a problem for Putin's bid to win the presidency in elections that have been brought forward to March by Boris Yeltsin's resignation. "Putin's people know that as much as the Chechnya campaign has sent his popularity rocketing among Russian voters, it could fall just as quickly if the war appears to be going badly," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "After all, Chechnya has been Putin's only political calling card. If enthusiasm for the war wanes, Russians may be left asking just who this guy is."
Good thing Russia doesn't have chain restaurants spread all over the world, because the Chechens appear to have some very angry friends. Four rocket-propelled grenades slammed into the Russian embassy in downtown Beirut, Monday, killing two policemen and recalling that city's heyday as the mayhem capital of the Middle East. The attacks followed weeks of protest by local Islamic militants against Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, which the U.S. warned Sunday could become an albatross around the neck of acting President Vladimir Putin if he's unable to find an exit strategy.