NAZRAN, RUSSIA — RUSSIAN forces have made a symbolic triumph in hoisting their flag over the remains of the Presidential Palace in Chechnya's capital, Grozny.
But the victory will not guarantee Russian forces much strategic advantage in the brutal war to suppress the rebel republic, as Chechens are prepared to fight on in Grozny to keep Russia from establishing power base.
Although Russian President Boris Yeltsin said yesterday that the military campaign is ``effectively over,'' and that ``everything will be quiet and normal and there will be no ballyhoo,'' it appears he cannot end the five-week war with either negotiation or gunfire.
The Chechen retreat early yesterday from the Presidential Palace occurred only once it was virtually destroyed. A final air attack sent a sophisticated penetration bomb, which also can act as a suffocating vacuum, crashing into the battered building.
Though the Chechens have no defense against such weaponry and have left much of the city center, they are certain to keep Russian forces on edge by returning to attack Russian posts in the city under cover of night.
According to Chechen officials, Moscow botched attempts to negotiate earlier this week by first proposing a cease-fire, then not following through with a positive Chechen response.
``How can you expect to reach an agreement when commanders in the field won't even meet with you?'' asked Chechen Justice Minister Usman Umayev during a press conference in Nazran, capital of the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
He and Chechen Economics Minster Abu Bakarov had just returned from a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in Moscow, whom they said had agreed on Tuesday to a cease-fire that would begin the following night.
But they were disillusioned upon returning to Nazran to finalize the cease-fire's details, when local Russian commanders refused to speak with them.
President Yeltsin himself then dashed any hopes of peace on Wednesday by announcing there would be no talks with Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, who last appeared publicly in a press conference Jan. 11 on Grozny's outskirts.
Chechens have been highly skeptical of Moscow's proposals since the war began, and even those who used to doubt President Dudayev have now rallied against Moscow after witnessing brutal Russian attacks on civilians.
The very hour the cease-fire was to take effect, the Russians unleashed another tremendous tank, artillery, and missile barrage on the newest front line, the city's southern suburbs.
``We watched from a hill, as the darkness turned orange amid the deafening war,'' says Russian columnist Yevgenia Albats of the pro-reform newspaper Izvestia. ``To me, civilians are no longer in control of Russia.''
In Moscow, three Russian generals had their rank as deputy defense ministers taken away by Yeltsin, Interfax news agency reported yesterday. The move could be part of a previously agreed effort to streamline the Defense Ministry. But Gen. Boris Gromov in particular had criticized the Chechnya campaign, and his dismissal raises concerns that the Kremlin is silencing opposition to the war.
Russian jets have also bombed and rocketed villages in the distant mountains as well as on the plains elsewhere in the republic. Several small villages have been attacked this week near the border with Ingushetia, at least two hours from Grozny.
The villagers under attack cannot explain why the Russians are targeting them. In the village of Assinovskaya, across a snow covered dirt street, a horse-drawn cart clopped by with buckets of water from a nearby stream.
``Who knows why they are doing this?'' asks Yuri Baitshev, an ethnic Russian who showed reporters a huge shell hole in his house. ``All I know is that one evening ... this fell out of the sky,'' he went on, holding up two metal fragments, including a small tail section.
Near a highway not far away, Russian troops were dug into defensive positions in a scene that could easily be from the first or second World War.
Tanks sat in large trenches dug into the muddy ground. Groups of soldiers where gathered around campfires, near V-shaped trenches pointing across the fields. The men are part of a convoy that refused to move against Grozny soon after the war began in mid-December. But they do provide security for armored convoys that pass by on their way to continue the war in Chechnya's capital.