A SHOCK assault by Chechen guerrillas on the Russian town of Kizlyar Jan. 9 has plunged the Kremlin into another hostage crisis and served as a brutal reminder of how easily the Chechen war can revive to dog the Kremlin at any time.
Recalling a similar attack on the city of Budennovsk last June, which left 120 people dead, the seizure of key installations in Kizlyar proved yet again how weak Russia's defenses are against this sort of operation.
President Boris Yeltsin, boiling with fury at the humiliating attack, railed publicly against his top security officials, whom he summoned for an emergency meeting Jan. 9. "How should I understand you, generals?" he demanded. "Are you playing with toys? What have you been doing instead of setting up guard posts ... and blocking the road to militants?"
Meanwhile the rebels, said to number up to 400 under the command of Salman Raduyev, the son-in-law of Chechen leader Gen. Dzokhar Dudayev, threatened to shoot hostages they had seized unless Russia withdrew its forces from Chechnya.
According to the Itar-Tass news agency, 16 people were killed in street-to-street fighting and about 1,000 people were being held hostage in a hospital at press time; two of the hostages were later killed.
The guerrillas attacked Kizlyar, just across the Chechnya border in Dagestan, before dawn on Jan. 9. After being beaten back at the airport, they took over the hospital, according to reports from the area. The local Interior Ministry troops base was also under heavy attack, ministry sources said.
The Chechen border is meant to have been sealed for over a year, since Moscow sent 40,000 troops into the breakaway republic to quash its independence-minded leader, Mr. Dudayev, a former Soviet Air Force general.
But the border guards' unreliability was revealed last week, when four of them were arrested for stealing Army weapons in Dagestan, allegedly in order to sell them to Chechen guerrillas. It was unclear how the guerrillas evaded detection en route to Kizlyar.
Yeltsin intended "to take the most decisive measures" in Kizlyar, his spokesman said. And after reports by a local official in Kizlyar that the rebels had killed two hostages, a government spokesman in Moscow completely ruled out talking to them.
The five-day Budennovsk hostage crisis last June was resolved after tense negotiations between Mr. Basayev and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
Those talks led to a suspension of hostilities and to peace talks. But the talks broke down last October and the shaky cease-fire collapsed completely in December, when guerrillas seized Chechnya's second-largest town, Gudermes, from Russian troops, and held it for 10 days.
Moscow no longer seems in the mood for further negotiations, and the Kremlin hawks demanding a full-scale military offensive to eliminate the remaining guerrilla forces are likely to enjoy a boost in the wake of the Kizlyar events.
But whether such an offensive would succeed is far from certain. And in the absence of a political solution to the Chechen crisis, no amount of conventional military success could ensure an end to Kizlyar-style attacks.
Russia's inability to militarily repress Chechnya's guerrillas seems especially clear, in Yeltsin's own words, in light of the fact that "it would seem that power structures, ministries, the government, the Security Council, and border troops have learned little from previous lessons."