Chechnya Set to Bring Trouble on Home Front

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The grim horror of the war in Chechnya is starting to hit home to Russians. The Russian military Tuesday admitted it has lost 1,173 men — including a high-ranking general, Mikhail Malofeyev — during the battle for control of the rebel republic, and since official figures are routinely understated it can safely be assumed that the real figure is a lot higher (an independent organization of soldiers' mothers claims the death toll is around 3,000). On Wednesday, Moscow put its security services on alert for a new round of terrorist attacks. The move may also be designed to remind citizens — who may starting to wonder whether planting a flag in Grozny is worth the cost — of the ostensible reason for the campaign, which began following a series of as yet unsolved terrorist bombings late last year.

The mounting death toll spells trouble for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who had ridden the campaign to a strong lead in the polls for the March presidential election. Almost a month after Russian generals began boasting that they'd control the Chechen capital in a matter of days, the bitter street fighting continues with the Russians measuring their advance in yards rather than miles, often being pushed back and suffering growing casualties at the hands of small, highly mobile guerrilla units. Russia's artillery and air power have pounded the city into rubble, but Grozny's capture now depends on the infantry — and they're having a rough time of it. Even the politically appealing goal of flying a Russian flag over the city and declaring the war won even as the bulk of the rebel forces remain intact in the mountains now looks likely to come at a heavy cost.