Even this prediction seems over-optimistic. Moscow depicts the Chechnya operation as painful but steady progress. In fact it is at best treading water. Military casualties are up, control is slipping. The Russians are losing allies through their own brutality and heavy-handedness and also the guerrillas' ruthless campaign of assassinating anyone who cooperates with the Moscow-backed administration. Guerrillas in Grozny have stepped up daylight attacks on Russian troops. And now they claim they will launch an offensive this summer, perhaps even before Vladimir Putin and George Bush meet later this monthseizing a large population center like Grozny or Gudermes and holding it for a few days to demonstrate Russian impotence. The strategy is simple, says one guerrilla commander: "Undermine their position this year and break them next."
The guerrillas have threatened offensives in the past and failed to follow through. But even without a high-profile military operation, it is clear the situation on the ground in Chechnya has changed dramatically. It is no longer a case of how long the Russians will take to win, but how long the rebels will take to regain the initiative.
Moscow has been showing signs of intense frustration. The top military commander in Chechnya unexpectedly went on leave recently. Moscow increased the confusion by naming first one replacement, then another. To add to Moscow's woes, German Ugryumov, deputy director of the FSD (Federal Security Service) and the man in overall charge of the pacification of Chechnya, died of an apparent heart attack at the main Russian base just outside Grozny. With the coming of spring, and the return of forest cover, Russian commanders predicted an upsurge of ambushes in the countryside. Instead, the ambushes have occurred in the citiesthree paramilitary police were killed in Grozny last week after they called home from a phone office; five police and soldiers were shot in the market the same day. The guerrilla units' small size, once touted by the Russians as proof of their own success, is now turning into a deadly problem for them. Groups of four or five fighters emerge to attack and then fade back into the population. The common Russian responseround-ups and house-to-house raidsonly heightens civilian hostility to the occupiers. The Russian government admits to 3,096 troops dead since October 1999not far off the 3,800 officially listed as killed during the war of 1994-96. Activists from the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers say the real death toll is almost double the official figure. No one counts the civilian dead.
The situation is no better on the political front. When Akhmad Kadyrov, once a close ally of separatist President Aslan Maskhadov, was appointed head of the Russian-backed administration last year, Kremlin officials predicted he would split the enemy, enticing top commanders to surrender or rally to the Russians. He has made no headway with the separatists, but has alienated the old guard of pro-Russian Chechens. The one area where Kadyrov has shown any zeal is private business, the Kremlin-backed website strana.ru noted in a biting attack on him. Last week, in a further sign of Moscow's unhappiness with Kadyrov, one of his deputies was arrested for corruption. Probably the only reason he is still in office is that the Kremlin cannot agree on a replacement.
Putin tries never to mention Chechnya. Jokesters, though, are having a field day. Variations on his famous threat"sign on toilet door: do not enter, rubbing out terrorists. Signed Putin"are among the barbs. Government officials, though, neither joke nor predict a swift victory. When Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is asked how long the conflict will last, he answers with a question of his own. "How long did it take to eliminate the Lithuanian partisans after World War II?" The analogy is surprisingthe Lithuanian "forest brothers" are now heroes in their homeland. And the answer is not encouraging for the once-upbeat generals. It took almost 10 years for a battle-hardened Soviet military to crush the partisans.