But bloody as it may be, the battle for Grozny may be primarily symbolic. "It's this medieval symbolism of planting your flag on a city and claiming you've won," says Zharakovich. "In a war against guerrilla forces, capturing a city doesn't mean anything." The bulk of the Chechen forces are already in the mountains to the south, and constant ambushes and attacks behind Russian lines signify the limits of territorial control in this war. Still, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin desperately needs a way to declare victory in the popular military campaign that he hopes will carry him to the presidency in March. And he appears to have decided that his road to the Kremlin passes through Grozny.
Building by building, street by street, the frenzied battle for control of a pile of rubble once known as Grozny continues. And the only certainty in the battle’s outcome is that it will leave hundreds of men dead. Russian and Chechen officials routinely understate their casualties, so when Moscow admitted Thursday that it has lost 23 men in the past day and the Chechen government says 45 of its fighters have died in the past week, it’s safe to assume that the streets of Grozny are littered with corpses. Russia also confirmed that one of its senior generals had been either captured or killed by Chechen forces in Grozny. "Russia’s leaders are desperate to capture Grozny, and they’ll eventually do it," says TIME Moscow correspondent Yuri Zarakhovich. "But the Chechens will make it a lot bloodier, and a lot slower, than the Russians expect." Part of the reason for Moscow's new sense of urgency is the specter of European economic sanctions, which may be imposed as early as next week. "While Europe wouldn't stop humanitarian supplies, sanctions may limit the commercial importing of food," says Zharakovich. And that could raise the domestic political cost of the war on the eve of the March presidential election.