MOSCOW'S bloodiest war since Afghanistan came to a formal close yesterday without resolving the fundamental disagreement that started it.
Russian officials and Chechen rebels signed an agreement to stop fighting in Chechnya, a small, mountainous region in southern Russia whose independence bid prompted Russian military intervention last December.
The question still left unanswered concerns Chechnya's independence. Although Russia has finally crushed the Chechens militarily, Chechens still are pushing for sovereignty in talks, and negotiators apparently decided to sign a partial, interim agreement to save their talks from collapse.
''The war in Chechnya is ending,'' said chief Chechen negotiator Usman Imayev yesterday after the agreement was signed in the Chechen capital of Grozny. But both Russian and Western observers are uncertain whether all the splintered Chechen forces will comply with it. Negotiators will return to the more difficult political questions on Thursday.
''The delegations ... agreed on stopping the war, all military activities,'' says Sandor Meszaros, an official for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who was in Grozny, the Chechen capital. The 53-member OSCE brokered the peace deal.
The peace accord contains four basic points: ''The first is immediate cessation of military activities; secondly, exchange of persons forcibly detained; thirdly, the cessation of all terrorist activities;... and [fourthly] disarmament and a stage-by-stage withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya,'' Mr. Meszaros says.
In effect, the agreement only formalizes piecemeal deals that the two sides had already made under the terms of a temporary cease-fire a month ago. That truce was arranged by the Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, when he negotiated to free hostages held in the Russian town of Budennovsk by a Chechen raiding party. The truce marked the end of the Russian offensive that had claimed thousands of lives.
Negotiations since then between a team representing Chechen leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev and the Russian government have stumbled over the hurdle of Chechnya's future status within - or outside of - Russia.
Initially, both sides seemed ready to set aside a decision on Chechnya's independence until after elections to a new regional government that were set for November.
Although Russia has won the war, and its troops are in control of almost all Chechen territory, Moscow's negotiators realized that their Chechen counterparts could not surrender their dreams of independence now without losing credibility among their people.
Recently, however, the Russian position appears to have hardened, with a demand that Chechnya clearly remain a subject of the Russian Federation.
General Dudayev responded defiantly in a TV address declaring that ''there is not a force on earth that can break the will of the Chechen people and lead it back into the Russian stable''.
With the basic question that sparked the war in the first place still unanswered, it is unclear how firm yesterday's military agreement will be.
The month-old truce has been broken almost daily, both in Grozny and elsewhere in Chechnya, and a number of Chechen field commanders are known to be wary of reaching any agreement with the Russian government.
Although the new accord sets out details of disarmament, it seemed unlikely that all Chechens will hand in their weapons without guarantees for the region's independence. And some senior Russian military officers are known to be anxious to keep on fighting until they can claim absolute victory over the Chechens.
This however, is not a simple proposition, despite the Russian forces' overwhelming superiority. The small rebel-held town of Bamut, in western Chechnya, has held out against repeated Russian assaults ever since the war began seven months ago, and groups of Chechen fighters in the forested southern mountains would be hard to eradicate.
While they are no longer in a position to do much more than harass the Russian troops, diehard independence fighters are unlikely to stop attacking - whether or not a peace treaty has been signed.