RUSSIA'S bid to bring Chechnya under its control, which has been a shambles from the outset, has become a deadly shambles. And every new air raid on civilian targets casts a deeper shadow over President Boris Yeltsin's future.
Mr. Yeltsin told a session of his powerful Security Council yesterday that ``we have approached a point where we can curtail the participation of the military and go over to the second phase, that of forming administrative bodies in the Chechen republic,'' according to the Interfax news agency.
But it was not clear how Yeltsin intended to remove the current authorities, led by self-proclaimed President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Yeltsin's options looked limited and bleak as he prepared to address the nation today. (Some Turks support Chechens, Page 7.)
The Army could continue its mutiny-plagued, reluctant advance on the Chechen capital, Grozny, heralding the prospect of unnumbered casualties that would weigh heavily against Yeltsin.
Or the president could cut his losses on the battlefield and start talks with General Dudayev. But such a humiliating climb-down from a campaign conceived as a vote-winner would cost Yeltsin dearly.
One smoother alternative for Moscow could come in the shape of a new ``government of national rebirth,'' reported by the Itar-Tass news agency to be established in Chechnya. Any such movement opposing independence leader Dudayev is expected to enjoy strong support from Moscow, but it is unclear how many Chechens would desert the man who for three years has led the republic's independence bid.
Meanwhile, the sight of wailing women pulling the bodies of their relatives from the smoking ruins of apartment blocks in Grozny, bombed by Russian planes, has shocked Russian TV viewers. Scores of civilians - many of them ethnic Russians - have been killed in apparently indiscriminate air raids over the past few days.
Forty-four Russian soldiers have been killed in fighting since Russian troops first rolled into Chechnya on Dec. 11, and more than 100 have been wounded, according to official sources in Moscow.
But those numbers would likely rise sharply in any attempt to seize Grozny, which Chechen fighters have pledged to defend to the death. And reports from the region say Russian forces are in no mood to do battle.
Moscow's bid to oust Dudayev, organized by the KGB's successor agency, the Federal Counterintelligence Agency (FSK), has been bungled from the start. Puppet Chechen opposition groups proved so incompetent that Russian soldiers were sent secretly to help them, and then 21 of those soldiers were captured in a futile assault on Grozny.
Yeltsin then issued three ultimatums to Dudayev to surrender, but simply extended them when Chechens ignored them. The thousands of Russian soldiers who were sent in two weeks ago have still not managed to surround Grozny, though the operation was expected to take less than a day.
The campaign is so unpopular in Army ranks that Col. Gen. Eduard Vorobyov, deputy commander of Russian ground troops, resigned his commission last week rather than obey an order to head the operation.
What was intended as a ``demonstration of strength has become a demonstration of the country's worthless military leadership and of the moral degradation of the Army,'' commented the weekly Moscow News.
But if Yeltsin loses stomach for more military action, his alternative is barely more palatable. Negotiations could hardly be expected to succeed with Dudayev where military might had failed.
Nor can Yeltsin afford to be seen losing a showdown with a small-time nationalist leader in a remote southern republic.
Such a humiliation would undermine the president's standing - possibly fatally - among the small group of key aides who are currently his only support in the face of overwhelming opposition to the Chechnya adventure from the public and from political parties.
Those officials, thought to include FSK chief Sergei Stepashin and two old Yeltsin cronies from Communist Party days - head of the presidential administration Viktor Ilyushin and Security Council secretary Oleg Lobov - have effectively kept the president's more liberal advisers out of the Kremlin over the past two weeks, the liberals complain.
``If a part of Yeltsin's entourage is consciously steering toward authoritarianism, if they believe that they will survive under this regime without Yeltsin, then these people are either already prepared to betray him, or don't rule out such a step,'' warned Gavril Popov, the reformist former mayor of Moscow.
On the other hand, if the president pursues the military option further, reformists who once supported Yeltsin fear he would then be pushed more firmly into the arms of the hard-liners.