MOSCOW — RUSSIAN troops have gained a strategic military victory by capturing the last separatist stronghold in rebel Chechnya.
But the four-month-old war in the mountainous North Caucasus region may still be far from over.
The profile of the Chechen conflict has dramatically changed since the strategic town of Shali fell on Friday, following the swift Russian capture of two key rebel bastions, Argun and Gudermes, earlier last week.
The defiant Chechens, who surprised many by holding out against their militarily superior aggressor this long, are sure to wage a vicious guerrilla war against the Russians, a grim prospect that analysts say could evolve into a second Afghanistan.
''Russian armed forces will take adequate measures if the remaining forces of [rebel leader Gen. Dzhokhar] Dudayev try to launch [such] an offensive,'' Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev told the ITAR-Tass news agency in an ominous warning.
Sunny spring weather would also help the Russians further pummel the Chechens, who have little antiaircraft equipment.
Clinton under pressure to cancel visit
For now, the dramatic shift in the war could not have come at a better time for President Boris Yeltsin, who has been criticized at home and abroad for his indiscriminate use of force in the rebel republic, which has had a centuries-old history of animosity toward Russia.
The fall of Shali, about 15 miles southeast of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, means large-scale fighting will almost certainly be over when President Clinton and other world leaders visit Russia in May to honor its stance against Nazi Germany during World War II. Mr. Clinton had been under pressure at home not to visit Russia because of the Kremlin's campaign in Chechnya.
No exact figures are available, but Moscow's Human Rights Commission has said that 24,000 civilians have been killed in Grozny alone. And Col. Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, who heads Russian forces in Chechnya, told ITAR-Tass Thursday that 1,426 soldiers had died.
While the West has spoken out against President Yeltsin's indiscriminate use of force in the region, most countries have refrained from being too critical of the Russian president, whom they see as the only hope for Russian democracy. United States Defense Secretary William Perry, who is on a visit to four former Soviet republics, is expected to discuss Chechnya and other issues with Russian defense leaders in Moscow today.
Russia, which suffered heavy losses early on because of poorly planned and ill-timed infantry advances, also would like an end to the war, which began when Yeltsin sent tanks and troops into Chechnya on Dec. 11 to quash the republic's three-year independence drive and oust General Dudayev, the Chechen leader.
No choice but to 'take to the hills'
Russia's recent victories can be attributed to a dramatic switch in military tactics -- unrelenting artillery assaults against the wearied and lightly armed Chechen fighters.
When the Chechens were forced from Grozny in February, they no longer had concrete ruins from which to hide from Russian cluster bombs. Instead, towns and villages still under their control lay vulnerable and exposed, sitting ducks for repeated strikes from Russian artillery and attack aircraft.
This allowed Russian troops last week to capture the last three strongholds, including strategic Shali, which had become Dudayev's headquarters after Grozny fell. The Russians are now in control of Chechnya's entire eastern flank, and about two-thirds of the region as a whole.
''As a result, Chechens are increasingly on the run. If they intend to continue armed resistance, they will have no choice but to take to the hills and start a full-scale guerrilla campaign,'' Pavel Felgenhauer, a military specialist for the daily Sevodnya, wrote late last week.
But he warned that limited resources and the relatively small region the Chechen mountains encompass -- roughly 62 miles by 31 miles -- would make a Chechen partisan army unlikely to survive long.
Outside world not likely to provide help
''The Chechens clearly need help from abroad -- weapons, ammunition, supplies, and medicine,'' Mr. Felgenhauer wrote, referring to neighboring Caucasian countries such as Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as well as the Muslim world. ''Otherwise, the partisan campaign will never even get started.''
But the outside world is unlikely to provide help to the Chechens -- and risk the wrath of powerful Russia.
Russian troops are based in Georgia and Armenia, which have signed agreements to have Russian military bases on their territories. Politically unstable Azerbaijan is unlikely to risk an open conflict with Russia, and only Libya is expressing open support for Dudayev.
While the fighting may end, a political solution to the crisis is as far away as ever -- a factor that may give the rebels more ammunition in their quest to launch a guerrilla war.
Russia has pledged $1 billion to rebuild the widespread devastation in Chechnya, much of which has been pulverized by the Russians. But while it is unclear how much support Dudayev still has, the various Kremlin-backed authorities installed in the region enjoy infinitely less popularity.