Moscow Calls Off Grozny Attack

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Russia's campaign in Chechnya is in trouble, and acting president Vladimir Putin is taking no chances. The Russian military announced Friday that it had been ordered to "temporarily halt" the assault on Grozny, and that Moscow's two leading commanders in Chechnya would be returning to their former posts. "This is as close as we're going to get to an official admission that Russian forces have hit a wall in Grozny," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "It's a major turning point."

Russian commanders had boasted that Grozny would fall within days after a concerted effort to seize the city began on Christmas eve. But mounting Russian casualties in the face of ferocious Chechen resistance signaled that Moscow would pay a heavy price to capture the city. Despite a six-week siege and constant bombardment of the city, Chechen forces are reported to have broken through Russian lines and reoccupied a number of villages to the southwest of the city. That may be a sign that Chechnya's brutal winter conditions are hampering Russian battle plans by ruling out effective air and artillery strikes, and providing dense fog through which the Chechen fighters are able to maneuver.

The popularity of the Chechnya campaign has made Putin the hot favorite in presidential elections scheduled for March, but the specter of mounting Russian casualties in a Caucasian quagmire could eat away at his support. Still, suspending the assault — out of a sudden concern for the city's civilian population after six weeks of indiscriminate bombing — doesn't necessarily eliminate the risk. Russian generals have already conceded that Chechen forces are actively harassing their troops deep inside areas over which Moscow has ostensibly established control. Which means that right now there's no politically safe way forward — or back.