Russia's Putin Faces a Grozny Primary

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Vladimir Putin may be the man to beat in Russia's presidential election, but first he must get through the Chechnya primary. Russia's parliament on Wednesday scheduled the election to choose Boris Yeltsin's successor for March 26, and the results of December's parliamentary elections suggest that acting president Putin has a commanding lead over his likely rivals — former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and ultra-nationalist fringe candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky. But although Russia's campaign in Chechnya has propelled Putin from obscurity to presidential front-runner, setbacks on the military front could hurt his approval ratings. "Chechnya has been Putin's only political calling card, and so far it's worked for him," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "But his backers are well aware that any setbacks there could sink him just as quickly as it carried him to the very top."

There should be at least a measure of concern, then, in Putin's camp, at the current state of the Chechnya campaign. Grozny is proving far more resilient than was allowed for by Russian generals who boasted three weeks ago that the Chechen capital would fall within days. Western news reports on Wednesday quoted Russian officers describing the heavy casualties their units have suffered in Grozny, and the Russian media has begun covering funerals of soldiers killed in the campaign. Although seizing Grozny would be more of a symbolic victory than anything else — the bulk of the Chechen separatist army has already retreated into the mountains — even that now looks unlikely without suffering heavy casualties. And one of the reasons the Russian electorate has been so gung-ho on the current Chechnya operation — and Putin — is the impression that Russia is winning while minimizing its own losses. Putin's road to the Kremlin runs through Chechnya, and it's starting to look a little boggy.