A series of brazen, well-coordinated attacks on official facilities in Russian regions bordering Chechnya Monday night left at least 58 dead and undermined Kremlin claims that violence in the Caucasus is giving way to stability.
The bloodshed comes just days after separatist Chechen rebels and Islamic militants signaled a change of tactics and promised "big attacks" against Russian forces prosecuting a five-year war.
President Vladimir Putin's policy on Chechnya has faced setbacks since the May 9 Grozny bombing that killed Ahmad Kadyrov, head of the Moscow-backed Chechen regime.
But while analysts say the scale of the simultaneous attacks was designed to impress - the estimated 200 fighters attacked 20 sites in the Russian region of Ingushetia killing an estimated 47 police and several pro-Moscow officials - it is unclear how long these tactics can last.
"This kind of attack is a major embarrassment for Mr. Putin - proof that the conflict in Chechnya is far from being resolved," says Oksana Antonenko, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.
"The question is: Can the rebels sustain this sort of tactic for a long time?" says Ms. Antonenko. "I really question that because ... the Russians have been quite successful in destroying large-scale military formations, so what is now left of the resistance of the rebels is a relatively small group."
Putin vowed Tuesday "to find and destroy" the attackers. The Russian president -who declared a "turning point" in Chechnya in 2002 and said that the military stage of the war was over - noted that symbols of state power topped the target list.
Russia says it is fighting an "antiterrorism" war against rebels and foreign fighters in Chechnya, and has compared its fight to the US war on terror.
"It's very bad for Putin," says Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, contacted in Berlin. "[The rebels] chose the place and the moment, exactly what they needed: They promised [big attacks], and they did it." [Editor's note: The original version had the Carnegie Moscow Center located in the wrong city.]
The magnitude of the strikes are "very important, because it means the war continues," says Mr. Malashenko. "It shows everybody it is possible to repeat [big] attacks and shows there is not a military solution."
Officials have said that just 500 rebels remain in thick mountain forests of southern Chechnya along the border with Georgia. Late last month the Interfax news agency quoted a regional Russian military chief asserting that rebels "are in fact completely disorganized" and on the run in groups of two or three.
But Tuesday Russian and Ingush officials said the fighters - some of them shouting "Alahu Akbar," or "God is great" - swept through the Ingush capital of Nazran and two border villages, striking at some 20 police, security, and administrative offices.
Ingushetia may have been chosen because of its weak defenses and taxed capabilities. The province has hosted tens of thousands of Chechen refugees for years. Ingushetia's authoritarian leader, a Kremlin loyalist, forced the last refugee camp to close recently - though many have refused to return to the uncertainties and violence across the border. Human rights groups have documented frequent abuses by Russian forces and pro-Kremlin militia. Washington, too, has voiced concern over abuses in the troubled republic.
"Inside Chechnya itself, it would be very difficult for [such an attack]," says Antonenko of IISS. "But this attack is a demonstration to show the Russian side that [the rebels] are still capable of doing something major."
Many analysts say the show of force fulfilled a recent promise. Separatist Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, elected president in 1997 and now accused of terrorism by the Kremlin, vowed that rebels would shift tactics against Russian security services, in an interview with US-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published last Thursday.
"We are planning to make changes in our tactics," warned Mr. Maskhadov. "If so far most of our effort was focused on acts of sabotage, from now on we'll be launching big attacks."
Maskhadov said Russian forces and intelligence units in Chechnya "still terrorize people. They still carry out their night raids in villages and homes. They still seize people who vanish without trace afterward ... [and have] started to attack the relatives, sisters, and wives of the mujahideen."
Maskhadov claimed that "every day we see numbers increase" of recruits who join "out of anger."
The rebels "will not stop our struggle, and we will not back off as long as the enemy tramples our soil," Maskhadov said. "If the Russians think they are going to win this war, they are wrong."
Pro-Moscow officials dismiss such threats. "They want to destabilize the situation in the republic," says Vasily Likhachev, a Chechen member of the Federation Council in Moscow who noted a recent attempt on the life of the Ingush president.
"When they feel they are losing ground they might use different methods," says Mr. Likhachev. "When there are new signs of stability ... they might have needed to prove their strength and activity."
"I believe that this is the last convulsive attempt of forces about to lose," says Umar Sapraliev, of the Ingush republic's office in Moscow. "They do not have the population's support."
Still, the cost of such activity may be high, in a region that has seen two Chechen wars in a decade. "The whole nexus of those regions is very unstable," says Antonenko. "It's a result of the complete abandonment of the North Caucasus in the last years of Putin's presidency, where they put artificial measures to stabilize Chechnya, but completely ignored what was happening [elsewhere]."
"I really fear that, in five years, we will see the North Caucasus - not just Chechnya - become increasingly unstable, with no solution at all coming from Moscow," Antonenko says.