Putin's Chechnya Nightmare

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The suicide bombs that rocked five Chechen towns last week not only killed more than 40 soldiers and civilians, they blew apart the Russian government's boast that the tide has turned in the war with Chechen separatists. The reality is that Russia is far from victory, and could well be approaching another disaster.

The worst damage came in Argun, a busy town a few miles east of the ruined capital of Grozny. There, a heavy truck pulled up outside a hostel for Russian policemen. Twenty-two people died in the blast and subsequent fighting, according to official accounts. Kavkaz.org, a Chechen guerrilla website, asserted that many hundreds were killed in the five attacks, but the real casualty count is, as usual, matter for conjecture.

The bombings rattled President Vladimir Putin, who was elected largely on the strength of his hard line on Chechnya, but now tries not to notice the war. This time, though, he flew to Mozdok, a huge military base just to the north of Chechnya, declared that officers in the rebellious republic needed to be more "disciplined," and denounced press reports that Moscow would be forced to negotiate with rebel President Aslan Maskhadov as a "provocation and disinformation." Before the blasts, his top commanders had taken a very different line. The worst of the war was over, they claimed. The few surviving Chechen guerrillas, demoralized and dispersed, had been forced deep in the remote forests and mountains of the south, they said.

The reality is that guerrillas control much of the countryside as well as many villages nominally under Russian control, and have infiltrated almost all Chechnya's towns. Despite the military checkpoints every few miles on most main roads, anti-Russian fighters can move wherever they want. A network of mountain tracks and forest paths can be negotiated by four-wheel-drive trucks, or horses. The guerrillas also use the main roads: Russian troops and officials of the Moscow-appointed administration admit that anyone can get anything through a Russian military checkpoint, providing they are willing to pay the right bribe.

Well before the suicide bombings, the atmosphere in even the most tightly controlled Chechen towns was reminiscent of central Vietnam in the early '70s. In Gudermes, the administrative capital of Chechnya since Grozny was destroyed, pro-Russian officials live behind closed curtains in the center of the city, fearing attacks by guerrillas. Russian soldiers shop in bazaars under the cover of fully armed comrades. Their nervousness is well-founded: guerrillas both operate in Gudermes and use it for rest and recreation. Amid the ruins of Grozny, Russian special forces stalk snipers as civilians walk calmly along the dusty streets.

Throughout the republic, convoys move under the cover of helicopter gunships, but live in fear of radio-operated mines makeshift collections of artillery shells and explosives that are placed with unnerving speed along the roadside, then detonated when the target passes. Survivors are raked with machine-gun fire.

Both mines and suicide bombings require a small number of motivated people. In their most optimistic moments, Russian officials claim that these tactics are a tacit admission by the Chechens that they can no longer wage a frontal war. This is almost certainly too sanguine. Chechen separatists have taken serious casualties but still have at least several thousand fighters under arms. The heroes of the 1994-96 Chechen war, like Maskhadov, were discredited before this war began, but many young Chechens are still willing to fight. And Russian zachistki house-to-house searches often accompanied by theft, sometimes by violence ensure that anti-Russian feeling does not subside. The brunt of the fighting is now being borne by the so-called Wahhabis, mostly young Islamic fundamentalists. A junior Wahhabi commander talked to Time near the center of Gudermes a week or two before the bombings. "Things seem quiet now, but wait a month or so," he said. "You'll see what we can do."