As Russia's military campaign against breakaway Chechnya slides deeper into quagmire, all eyes are on the war's prime architect, Acting President Vladimir Putin, to define what the end game is going to be.
So far Mr. Putin, who faces his first electoral challenge in a presidential vote less than two months away, has hinted at several different possible long-term plans for Chechnya, but committed himself to none.
"The Kremlin's task right now is to get Putin elected by building up his popularity rating," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow. "After the voting on March 26, that task will either be fulfilled, or not. Then we can expect the strategic decisions about the war to be made."
One solution may be to distract voters with other issues and project Putin as a leader who is capable of restoring Russia's prominence in global affairs. This week, for the first time in more than three years, Russia will host multilateral Middle East peace talks.
The talks, set to begin tomorrow, will be chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Representatives from Israel and several Arab states will be discussing cross-border issues such as arms control, the environment, water, Palestinian refugees, and economic cooperation.
Dr. Albright will also meet with Putin during her visit, with Chechnya a likely topic of discussion.
At the world economic conference in Davos, Switzerland, over the weekend, Albright praised Putin as a reformer, but said the Clinton administration was not "starry-eyed" in its assessment of the new Russian leadership.
For more than a month, Russian forces have been bogged down in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, and in the republic's near-impenetrable mountainous south. Even by its own dubious official count, Russian casualties are rising sharply.
For the past week, Russian efforts have been focused on trying to take strategic Minutka Square, in the center of the city.
The Kremlin's priorities for the moment are seemingly to ensure that Russians continue to view the war as just, necessary, and successful. "The people want order to be introduced in Russia," Putin said in an interview earlier this month. "And we are acting in the north Caucasus. I can firmly say we are doing this on the instruction of the Russian people, who are tired of our sloppiness and irresponsibility."
He denounced a series of lightning Chechen-rebel counterattacks, which struck deep behind Russian lines, in remarkably revealing terms. "That was rather a propaganda attack in reality," he said. "Though a dangerous one."
The danger is apparently that bad war news might sour public opinion. "You must remember that there are two wars going on," says Mr. Iskanderyan. "There's the one being fought on the TV screens, and the real one. Only the first really matters to the Kremlin at the moment. The second must not be allowed to interfere."
The trick is to get through the election campaign. Analysts believe there is still a chance for a credible anti-Putin candidate to emerge, though a fading one. The most frequently mentioned alternative champion is former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who remains highly respected among the elite and Russians at large.
Two weeks ago in the newly elected Duma, or lower house of parliament, a strange coalition between the opposition Communist Party and the pro-Kremlin Unity Party succeeded in blocking Mr. Primakov's candidacy as parliament Speaker - electing Communist Gennady Seleznyov. The Speaker's position is a high-profile one and would have conferred enormous political advantages on a Primakov presidential run. In response, several parties staged a brief boycott before agreeing to return to their seats Jan. 27.
Whoever runs against Putin will be obliged to concentrate criticism on the Chechen war, since that is virtually the only policy the acting president has clearly laid stake to. Even a few serious battlefield setbacks might disenchant Russia's notoriously mercurial electorate.
"Much will depend on Moscow's capacity for blocking information from the area of combat operations and its ability to create the illusion of a successful outcome," says Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "But even now it can be seen how difficult it is becoming for our illusionists. Since this war is impossible to win, Putin needs to be thinking about how to distance himself from it."
International criticism over Chechnya has been sporadic. Wrapping up a Moscow visit on Saturday, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan repeated his call for an end to the fighting.
"No one can support or encourage terrorism," Mr. Annan told ITAR-Tass news agency, but "all measures should be taken to ensure that civilians do not get caught in the middle."
Last week the 41-member Council of Europe eased off a threat to suspend Russia from its ranks over the military operation, giving Russia three months to begin cease-fire talks and improve conditions for Chechen civilians.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society