MOSCOW — THE year is ending just as it began for Chechnya, with the destruction of a city center under massive Russian bombardment and heavy civilian casualties.
Last winter it was the region's capital, Grozny, that was transformed into a shattered wasteland. This week it was the turn of Gudermes, Chechnya's second largest town. Buried in the rubble were the hopes for peace that had flickered briefly with a cease-fire agreement earlier in the year.
Russian forces recaptured Gudermes after a 10-day siege of rebel guerrillas who had sneaked in enough men to seize the railway station and other buildings.
But Moscow wrested back control of the strategically important town at a terrible price for its inhabitants: At least 300 of them died under an intense artillery and helicopter gunship assault, according to official figures.
Most of the guerrillas, who are loyal to pro-independence leader Gen. Dzhokar Dudayev, managed to slip away under cover of heavy fog, Russian military sources acknowledged.
The bloody episode appeared to signal the resumption of major hostilities in the breakaway republic, which began last December as President Boris Yeltsin sent in troops to quell a sustained independence bid by Chechen guerrillas.
A truce in July brought a few months of relative calm, but tensions grew when the Kremlin scheduled new elections for Dec. 17.
'The war is just beginning'
General Dudayev heralded his men's attack on Gudermes by telling reporters in his mountain hideout over two weeks ago that "the war is entering a new phase, the war is just beginning".
Moscow is responding in kind. "We will be changing our tactics," Interior Minister Gen. Anatoly Kulikov said as his troops cleared mines from the streets of Gudermes. "We will combine negotiations with those [rebel] field commanders who are ready to surrender their weapons ... with special combat operations to destroy those bandit groups that will not do so."
"Among Dudayev's supporters there remains not a single person with whom political talks are possible," echoed the commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, Gen. Anatoly Shkirko. He accused the leader of the Chechen delegation to peace talks, Aslan Maskhadov, of masterminding the rebel seizure of Gudermes.
With both sides talking tough, Moscow's plans to build a political solution to the conflict on the foundations of this month's elections do not look promising.
Doku Zavgayev, Chechnya's last Communist Party boss, whom Moscow reinstalled as local leader two months ago, won elections to the post of head of the regional government on Dec. 17, opening what the Kremlin hopes will be a new chapter in the Chechen crisis.
"The establishment of a legitimate government in Chechnya must ... bring the Chechen people to reconciliation," said Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin this week. "It is impossible to settle the Chechen crisis by military means. We will not let the Chechen war get into a second round."
But no credible candidates opposed Mr. Zavgayev, and although he claimed 95 percent of the vote on a 68 percent turnout, independent observers saw hardly any Chechens voting in elections that Dudayev - and Chechen leaders of almost every other political stripe - had condemned as illegitimate.
The rebels' strike at Gudermes on the first day of extended voting in the election was clearly an attempt to disrupt the poll. It also showed their military strengths and weaknesses.
Guerrillas rebuild stocks
Though their manpower and armories are severely depleted from levels a year ago, the firepower they concentrated on the counterattacking Russian troops indicates that the guerrillas have been able to resupply in recent months, Russian military analysts say.
But officials play down the rebels' ability to launch full-scale war. "Dudayev has the strength to stab in the back, to conduct guerrilla diversionary acts, terrorist acts," sniffed General Kulikov.
"Gudermes showed that even after six months' rest, the guerrilla units are unable to withstand federal forces in straight battle for a long time, although they have the initiative in choosing where and when to fight," wrote military analyst Pavel Felgengauer in yesterday's Sevodnya newspaper.
And with the new Duma (lower house of parliament) dominated by parties that support the idea of defeating Dudayev by any means, Mr. Felgengauer pointed out, the political pendulum appears to be swinging in favor of the hawks in Moscow. "The Chechens could win this kind of war only when their opponents lacked political will," he argued. "Now, they do not lack that will."