Russian generals, riding a wave of apparently easy victories over Chechnya's separatist forces, are pledging to completely encircle Grozny and end the war by New Year's.
Russian efforts are now focused on the Chechen capital, once a center of 1 million people but now largely in ruins from the 1994-96 civil war.
But some experts are warning that the Russian Army has worked itself into a trap, with a lot of hard fighting still ahead.
Reports say 5,000 Chechen rebel fighters are digging in, building bunkers, and stockpiling supplies as bad weather has cut down on bombing raids by Russian jets and helicopters. The early onset of winter has caught the 100,000-man invasion force in the field, with tenuous supply lines, and facing multiple fronts against a wily and highly mobile enemy.
"By moving so far and so fast, the Russian military has created a harsh dilemma for itself," says Alexander Golts, military analyst for Itogi, a weekly newsmagazine.
"Before winter closes in they must decide whether to continue going forward and take Grozny - which will be a very tough nut to crack - or to retreat back to more manageable lines along the Terek River [north of the city]," he says.
As long as the rebel flag flies over the battered capital, the Kremlin cannot declare even partial victory in its war to bring Chechnya back under Moscow's control. Nor can Russia begin the vital second stage of the campaign: the battle to win over Chechen hearts and minds.
For eight weeks the Russians have been advancing through Chechnya behind a methodically laid down screen of heavy weapons fire. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, some 60 populated centers, from tiny villages to Chechnya's second-largest city of Gudermes, have chosen to expel rebel fighters and invite the Russians in after receiving a dose of bombardment.
Ebullient Russian generals are predicting that even Grozny, now about 80 percent surrounded, will soon give up without a fight. "The people themselves will sort things out with the bandits from the inside, and we will help them," the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, said Nov. 22.
The Russian plan involves using tens of thousands of troops to draw a tight ring around Grozny, choking off rebel communications with the outside, and calling on Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to surrender. "Laying siege to Grozny is full of problems," says Oleg Kustov, editor of Military Parade, a defense industry magazine. "The best outcome would be if the rebels would agree to leave voluntarily, but I doubt that will happen."
Though military leaders vow not to repeat the mistakes of the last war, when an ill-prepared storming of Grozny cost hundreds of Russian lives, analysts say the pressures for an all-out assault are growing.
"There is political momentum. Elections are coming [Dec. 19] and the Kremlin wants victory," says military analyst Mr. Golts. "It would be safer and wiser to pull back to more rational lines ... and wait for spring," he says. "But with the Russian public and elite all united in patriotic fervor behind the war, they are impelled to go forward whether it's wise or not."
Another key consideration for the generals is that they are obliged, under Russia's conscription system, to rotate about 40 percent of their Chechen invasion force by year's end. Russia's depleted military has concentrated its best and most experienced troops in Chechnya, but still about 90 percent of them are conscripts rather than the better-paid kontraktniki, or hired volunteers. Analysts say huge numbers of recruits' terms are ending soon, which puts the generals in a "use them or lose them" situation.
"No general wants to face a long winter campaign with the ranks full of untested conscripts," says Alexander Chechevishnikov, an expert with Moscow University's Institute of Social and Historical Issues. "But storming Grozny now would be very costly in military and civilian lives. Basically, the city has become a trap for us."
The Russian government's chief administrator in Russian-controlled Chechnya, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Koshman, on Nov. 22 warned the thousands of civilians believed still living in Grozny to leave as quickly as possible.
In a television interview, Mr. Koshman said Chechnya's capital will probably be transferred to Gudermes, which surrendered to federal forces two weeks ago. "We can think about reconstructing Grozny in the future, if the situation warrants it," he said.
Russian control over Gudermes was considered secure enough to invite some 50 Western journalists for a brief and carefully managed visit over the weekend. As part of the show, gas supplies were restored and officials promised electricity will be switched on soon.
"The political strategy is to show the Chechens that life is better under Russian control, that there is heat, light, running water, and regular pensions," says Mr. Kustov.
But visiting journalists found little loyalty to Moscow in Gudermes, where a shoot-on-sight nighttime curfew remains in effect. "You try spending just one night in the cellar with these children when the bombs are falling. All you want is to make it stop," Fariza, a mother of two, told a Reuters correspondent. While other civilians voiced frustration with the rebels' increasing ties to foreign Islamic extremists, they said they preferred local rule to what they considered a Russian occupation.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society