AS post-Soviet Russia seeks to define its new identity, and its borders, the unruly semiautonomous republic of Chechnya, peopled by fiercely independent mountain dwellers, has become symbolic of the problems Moscow faces in the farther-flung corners of its territory.
The Chechen authorities, led by self-proclaimed president Dzhokhar Dudayev, have mounted a secessionist effort, and Moscow has backed local opposition groups in an effort to unseat General Dudayev. But the opposition in the breakaway republic suffered a recent military defeat, and now the Kremlin appears at a loss over how to deal with the secessionists.
Fearful that invading would lead only to an Afghanistan-style war, but increasingly unwilling to tolerate the southern republic's self-declared secession, Moscow policymakers are dithering.
``Our state is suffering from a paralysis of will,'' lamented former Russian Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov in the liberal daily Izvestiya on Tuesday. ``And the way in which the issue of Chechnya is resolved will affect the fate of other regions of the country.''
After Dudayev's forces routed an opposition faction 10 days ago, the rag-tag militias opposing his rule were put under a unified command on Wednesday. But doubts have arisen over their ability to oust the breakaway leader, and some senior officials are questioning Moscow's support for the opposition.
``What looked like a winning [Russian] strategy a month ago doesn't look anything like that now,'' says one Western diplomatic analyst.
The Russian authorities initially took little action when General Dudayev, a former Soviet Air Force pilot, seized power in the northern Caucasian republic of Chechnya and declared it independent of Russia in 1991. For nearly three years, the Kremlin appeared satisfied to let the region stew in its economic decline.
But as economic problems weakened Dudayev's position, and as nationalist forces at home grew stronger, President Boris Yeltsin felt impelled to do more to impose Russian national territorial integrity. Since mid-July, Moscow has openly been providing the Chechen opposition with money, arms, and ammunition.
Imposing Russian rule on Chechnya is not an easy task. Since Czarina Catherine II began expanding the Russian empire to the south in the 18th century, the Chechens resisted bitterly and were only finally subdued 100 years later, in 1864.
The Chechen people paid for their resistance. Twelve times they were subjected to mass deportations, most recently under Stalin, when some 30 percent of their population perished.
This history has complicated Russian efforts to encourage opposition to Dudayev. Moscow's favorite opposition leader, Umar Avturkhanov, ``looks like Russia's boy, and that doesn't help him at home,'' adds the diplomat.
At the same time, Moscow clearly has deep reservations about sending its own troops into Chechnya to reimpose Russian rule, as some Chechen opposition leaders have demanded. Direct intervention in the Muslim republic, officials here fear, would bog Russian troops down in an unwinnable guerrilla war.
Russian troops on Chechnya's border have been put on top alert, but only to ensure that the fighting does not spread beyond the region, according to Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev.
A Russian blockade of Chechnya has been only partially enforced, and Chechen oil exports, on which the local economy depends, are still flowing.
In the other direction, the weapons for the opposition are flowing steadily from Russian Army stocks, according to opposition spokesmen.
Ironically, one of the recipients of these weapons is the Russian president's sworn enemy Ruslan Khasbulatov, a leader of the parliamentary uprising against the Kremlin last October.
Mr. Khasbulatov, a Chechen by origin, installed himself last month in his home village of Tolstoy-Yurt as an opposition leader, arming his followers and holding talks with anti-Dudayev figures.
He has thus become a wild-card, complicating Moscow's calculations even further. If the opposition were to succeed in overthrowing Dudayev, Khasbulatov would occupy a prominent position in the new government, and could win election to one of Chechnya's two seats in Russia's Federation Council.
Were that to happen, Mr. Yeltsin would find his bitter enemy back in parliament in Moscow with a new power base - an awkward prospect for the Russian leader to swallow.
Observers in Moscow are unsure of the relative strengths of the armies behind Dudayev and the opposition in mountainous Chechnya, where clan membership is more important than political opinion, and blood feuds more decisive than elections.
This raises the specter of anarchy, should the various pro-Russia groups fail to unify, and even if they were to take power.
``A war of `each against all' might break out among numerous guerrilla units that could not be controlled or unified,'' warned presidential adviser Emil Pain in a recent memo to Yeltsin. ``The same might happen if the opposition ... came to power in Grozny,'' the Chechen capital.
``This,'' he added, ``would be most dangerous from the point of view of Russian interests.''
Having fanned the flames of civil war in Chechnya, however, Moscow appears stuck with the consequences. For now, predicts the Western diplomat, Moscow will most likely ``continue to ratchet up the pressure, hoping that slow strangulation and building up the opposition will work.
``But if Dudayev withstands it,'' he adds, ``the Russians will have to deal with him.''