It Could Be Apocalypse Again

Two Russian fighter-bombers, flying low and tight over high mountain ridges, dropped eight cluster bombs on the village of Elistanzhi. One bomb hit the local school, killing at least nine students, and others demolished eight houses. Most of those killed were women and children, village elders said on Saturday as they mourned and began burying their dead. Men stood in a circle praying as women in nearby houses wailed. "They say they are bombing just terrorists... but there are no terrorists here," says Walid Basayev, the local magistrate, standing next to a man who cradled his brother's charred remains in a tattered bundle. "If they force us to fight, we will fight, and we will fight like animals. Now we have a blood feud to avenge against the Russians."

Moscow has a history of making enemies in Chechnya. The first time Russian tanks rumbled into the separatist republic, in 1994, they were forced to withdraw ingloriously 21 months later. As a face-saving measure, both sides agreed to defer a decision on Chechen independence for five years. But after a recent uprising in neighboring Dagestan, as well as four mysterious bombings of Russian apartment buildings, Moscow's frustrated leaders lashed out. In recent weeks, Russian troops bent on restoring their tattered reputation have captured roughly a third of Chechnya. Even as President Boris Yeltsin was hospitalized last week--this time with a fever and flu, the Kremlin said--Chechen rebels were striking back.

That's scary, and not just for the Chechen civilians who are sure to suffer most from another prolonged conflict. During the last Chechen campaign, Russian soldiers who weren't cut down in battle were often felled by sickness. Hepatitis was rampant because of poor sanitation and bad food. Now, the Russian military--and Russia generally--is in worse shape. "What happens when this goes bad and suddenly conscripts decide they don't need to be there any longer?" asks a U.S. Army analyst, who was permitted to speak on background only. "The last time Russians deserted in large numbers was World War I, when Lenin was planning his return to Moscow."

Mass desertion is the worst- case scenario. But only the most sanguine analyst would see Chechnya as a promising place to restore Russian honor. Military planners believe they've learned key lessons from the first Chechen fiasco. The troops spearheading this operation are elite paratroopers and Spetsnaz special commandos, not ragtag grunts. The Russians are relying heavily on air power and using infantry with caution. As of last week, Russian ground forces had sensibly stopped short of the capital Grozny and its mountainous hinterland, where Islamic rebels can hide and fight with tactical advantage.

From Moscow's perspective, that's the good news. But military expert Pavel Felgenhauer argues that while some units in eastern Chechnya may be skilled commandos, most of the soldiers are "more or less the same kind of cannon fodder" that was deployed in 1994. Moreover, the 30,000-strong force needs equipment and food. Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov last week admitted he'll have to rewrite his budget. The smart money in Moscow was betting that he didn't have the rubles for a sustained operation.

Last week Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that the Chechen campaign would soon enter "phase two," which he described as the "total annihilation of terrorism." If Russia's military was out to restore its tattered reputation, it was off to a shaky start.