Down But Not Out

Argun's streets are mostly deserted at night. Nothing breaks the stillness--aside from the distant flashes and thuds of Russian artillery relentlessly pounding Chechnya's capital, Grozny, 20 kilometers to the west. Here in Argun, the Russian troops huddle nervously in their heavily sandbagged trenches and fortified municipal buildings, chain-smoking and cradling their Kalashnikovs at the ready. They marched triumphantly into town a month ago, regarding themselves as liberators. They hardly doubted that the war would soon be over. Now, however, Argun seems besieged. A sudden sense of doom has gripped much of "Free Chechnya," as the Russians call the two thirds of the republic they supposedly control.

For two days last week Russia's military campaign in Chechnya appeared to have completely unraveled. The breakaway republic's rebels temporarily retook the town of Shali, ambushed armored convoys near Urus Martan and Argun and sent forays through the suburbs of Gudermes, the unofficial capital of Chechnya's pro-Moscow provisional government. Several hundred Islamist guerrillas rolled into Argun virtually unopposed. Most of the Russian defenders, including both a regular Army garrison and a unit of the Russian Interior Ministry's elite special forces, OMON, dug themselves in at the local military command headquarters and the railway station--and prepared to die. The rebels ruled the streets, yelling "Allah akbar!" ("God is great!") from the rooftops and gunning down a disputed number of Russians.

Moscow's artillery and "smart" missiles eventually drove back the rebels. But the Russians' confidence is deeply shaken. For the first time their military campaign has met serious resistance. After last summer's guerrilla raids in the neighboring republic of Dagestan and the unsolved spate of terrorist bombings in Moscow and other cities, the Army was supposed to send swift and massive punishment to Chechnya's Muslim separatists. A chorus of Russian officers and politicians led by Russia's new interim president, Vladimir Putin, keeps promising that "constitutional order" will soon be restored in the breakaway republic. Putin will almost surely be elected president two months from now--unless the rebels manage to embarrass him badly enough on the battlefield. Last week they proved they are anything but beaten.

Survivors say the attack on Argun was merciless. "For the first few hours we thought we were done for," says an OMON captain from the city of Chelyabinsk, in the Urals. "There was so much shooting we couldn't even raise our heads above the parapet." Days later he remains visibly unnerved. "We heard the lads at the [railway] station calling for help on the radio," he recalls. "They were surrounded." The town's military commandant, Col. Vladimir Kushnaryov, died in the fighting. He and his men rode out to relieve an OMON platoon under heavy fire. Rebel gunmen shot the rescue party to pieces near the main square.

Outside Argun another rebel unit ambushed a reinforcement column of armored personnel carriers. Rocket-propelled grenades disabled five of the vehicles, and 16 Russian soldiers died, according to an Army Special Forces major on a mop-up patrol in Argun. "It was carnage," he says of the scene on the highway. "Bodies everywhere. Many were terribly mutilated. It was a very professional ambush."

No one is sure how many Russians died last week. The Defense Ministry insists only five were killed in Argun and 15 in Shali. Official estimates of the rebel dead range from 60 to 200. But those figures bear no resemblance to the bloodbath described by eyewitnesses. Russian journalists complain that their bosses are straining credulity by making their coverage stick tight to the government's line. "The editors always want good news," says one state TV producer. "But right now we're having to search really hard."

In Grozny and the other cities of northern Chechnya, most civilians seem desperate for peace. All they want is an end to the anarchy and bloodshed they have endured since 1991, when Chechnya took its first steps toward independence. But that's just a distant dream. The rebels, mostly mountain boys from the south, are standing fast on the outskirts of Grozny. Even with round-the-clock artillery barrages the Russians have advanced barely 500 meters in nearly a month. "They [the Russians] are getting nowhere!" complains Aza Gaziyeva, a resident. "They just bomb and bomb and get nowhere!" In late December her house was demolished by a Russian bombardment--despite the locals' best efforts to surrender the neighborhood without a fight.

The ruinous stalemate can only have been worsened by the disarray in the Army's high command. In recent weeks an apparent power struggle convulsed the field officers' top ranks. Gennady Troshev, commander of the war's eastern front, and Vladimir Shamanov, his counterpart in western Chechnya, were dismissed from their posts in early January without official explanation. The announcement was followed by a mysterious weeklong pause in the attempt to capture Grozny. Outside observers speculated that the lull would end in an all-out final assault on the city. Late last week the Russians intensified their efforts to capture the capital. Still, the rebels have shown they can call the shots--and for Putin, hope is fading fast that his troops will deliver Chechnya in time for the March election.