In Chechnya, a Familiar — and Painful — Scenario

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It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Russian generals were boasting before Christmas that the Chechen capital, Grozny, would fall in a matter of days; on Monday, though, they were forced to admit that rebels had broken through Russian lines over the weekend, recapturing a number of villages around the capital and inflicting heavy casualties on Moscow's forces. Fierce fighting for control of the towns of Argun and Shali continued Monday even as Russian troops appeared to be regrouping and rearming for a renewed assault on Grozny. Russian public confidence in a quick and clean victory, which translated into an almost unassailable lead for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the race for president, also appears to have been shaken by reports of heavy casualties and military operations gone wrong.

"The deadline that Putin set for himself on Grozny has already passed, and now it's threatening to turn into a familiar quagmire," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "While the Russian public is still overwhelmingly in favor of the war, the challenge for Putin is how to maintain the appearance that things are going well in the absence of a real victory on the ground." And the events of the weekend highlighted the limits of Russian control despite its territorial gains in the first months of the war. The Chechens for the most part retreated in the face of Russian air power, armor and artillery, insisting their plan was to draw the Russians in and then harass them through guerrilla action. "Now we're entering the phase of a brutal and bitter partisan war in which the Chechens attack at night and try and raise the cost of the Russian siege," says Meier. "And the Russian military is clearly undecided about how to proceed. Even though it may be politically dangerous to risk the heavy casualties of trying to take Grozny, Russia's generals won't be prepared to simply dig in and wait if they're losing scores of men every day."