Frightened and frustrated, ordinary Russians appear ready to approve a new war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya - as long as it remains limited.
After nearly two weeks of airstrikes, Russian troops entered Chechnya Saturday and yesterday continued efforts to set up what Russian officials called a "sanitary zone" around the frontier to block Islamic militants from infiltrating nearby regions. But officials denied there were plans for a full-scale ground assault.
"Federal troops have crossed into Chechnya from several [yards] to a few [miles]," Valery Manilov, the Russian military's first deputy chief of staff, told news services. "But there is no large-scale operation under way and no plans for it."
The Russian military reportedly shelled Chechen territory from the east and the west. While military officials say only suspected guerrilla bases and support facilities are targeted, residents in Urus-Martan, 12 miles southwest of the Chechen capital, Grozny, told the Associated Press 28 civilians were killed in an air raid Saturday night.
Last week, Russian media leaked purported military plans to occupy Chechnya's northern plains this autumn and install a pro-Moscow regime. Separatist rebels would be forced into the hills, where they would would face a cold winter and constant Russian harassment from the air.
Yevgeny Primakov, the former Rus-sian prime minister who leads opinion polls to replace unpopular President Boris Yeltsin, said he opposed a ground operation. "Today [world opinion] is unanimously behind us, because it sees our activities in Chechnya as aimed toward the struggle against terrorism," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying on Saturday. "After a large-scale operation, which will have a very serious impact on peaceful civilians, there will be a huge outpouring of refugees and we will stand alone. We don't need this."
Chechen officials say Moscow has violated the peace deal that ended their devastating 1994-96 war and have vowed to drive Russian troops out once again. The conflict remains a bitter memory for most Russians. An estimated 80,000 people, mostly Chechen civilians, died before a defeated and humiliated Russian Army withdrew from the tiny southern Caucasus republic.
But for the moment, the party of war seems to have Russian public opinion on its side. A survey conducted in mid-September by the independent Regional Political Research Agency found 49 percent of Russians agree with the need for airstrikes against Chechnya. Thirty-six percent opposed them.
Chechen-backed fighters have been spreading rebellion in neighboring Dagestan for months and are blamed by Moscow for a wave of apartment bombings that killed nearly 300 Russians in September.
"For the first time, the public backs a strong policy of force against Chechnya and the Islamic militants," says Sergei Kazyennov, an analyst with the Institute for National Security Issues, an independent Moscow think tank. "This is because most Russians feel personally threatened for the first time," he says. "They are also beginning to sense a real danger that Russia could break up as the Soviet Union did."
It is possible that Russians have reached a kind of historical breaking point. After a decade that has seen Rus-sia shrink to its 18th century borders and reduced to the status of a third-rate power, some are saying enough is enough.
"Our mistake was that we gave up and left Afghanistan 10 years ago," says Valery Lyubimov, a veteran who served with Soviet forces against Afghan mujaheddin in the mid-1980s. "[Former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev started negotiations with them. Now look what we have. The [Islamic fundamentalist] Taliban rules in Afghanistan and the Muslim extremists are attacking us in our own country.
"Now's the time to draw the line. We should go in there and smash them in Chechnya."
Russian leaders are vowing to avoid the mistakes of the previous conflict in Chechnya, when waves of ill-trained and ill-equipped recruits were pitted against well dug-in Chechen guerrillas fighting for independence for their homeland.
"The main problem in that [earlier] war was that politicians didn't define what needed to be done," says Maj. Igor Chekuliav, an Interior Ministry officer who served in Chechnya. "Now our leaders have understood that it's a war, and it has to be fought to the end."
That's fine with many ordinary Rus-sians, as long as it doesn't produce fresh military disasters.
"It's high time to stop all this chaos and bring order to Chechnya," says pensioner Yuri Chernevsky. "But we should fight the way the Americans do, cleanly and professionally. We should learn from history, and not repeat the same stupid mistakes."
But some experts are not so sure it can be done at all. "Today the Russian Army is more poorly prepared for battle than in 1995, whereas the Chechens are apparently better equipped and trained," writes Pavel Felgenhauer, military analyst with the Moscow daily Segodnya.
The stakes are high. Campaigning for Dec. 19 parliamentary elections is under way. Presidential polls are slated for next June. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Mr. Yeltsin's designated heir, needs to prove that he can handle tricky situations like Chechnya quickly - or he could face political oblivion.
"The Army may be fighting more intelligently, but federal authorities have not learned the main lessons of the last war," says Alexander Chepurenko, deputy director of the independent Institute of Social and National Issues in Moscow. "There is still no political strategy that could lay the basis for a long-term settlement in the Caucasus.
"Our leaders are simply playing on the anti-Chechen public mood for short-term populist purposes. And, as we all know, moods can change - especially when the coffins start to pile up."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society