A chill mist hung over southern Chechnya late last week, bringing fresh misery to masses of refugees huddled in muddy camps and to many thousands of Russian troops hunkered down in jerry-built bunkers. But the vaporous air lent aid and comfort to the ghostlike Chechen guerrillas, who are successfully using stealth and guile to turn the tide of the war.
At least for now. Over the past two weeks, the rebels' hit-and-run tactics have managed to check the Russians' juggernaut offensive, inflicting politically humiliating attacks on Russia's superior forces and politically damaging body counts. Even if Russia has regained control of the battlefield, the guerrillas have melted away to plot new surprises. Acting President Vladimir Putin's confident prediction of imminent victory--and his triumphal glide to the presidency in March--is slipping toward the Chechen quagmire.
Until a few weeks ago, when Russian troops reached the outskirts of the provincial capital of Grozny, Chechen fighters had been strangely inactive. Moscow's generals attributed their unhindered progress to brilliant new tactics. When the advance bogged down around Christmas at the outskirts of the capital--where the besieging forces have remained ever since, pulverizing the city but making little progress--Moscow put an optimistic gloss on the situation. Through the tame media, Putin declared that everything was proceeding according to plan. Russian forces have made a "breakthrough" in the campaign, reported Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev. The defenders of Grozny are disorganized and panicking, the Russian command announced.
In fact, the Chechens were just biding their time. Last week guerrillas came out of nowhere to raid three important towns. Creeping into Argun, mixing with local residents, attackers assaulted Russian troops occupying buildings in the town square, killing 10 or 20 before ferocious return fire drove them off. In Shali, hundreds of rebels brazenly encircled the Russian military commandant, demanding he hand over his troops' weapons and clear out. The Chechens blocked a base on the edge of the town, so when Russian armor tried to deploy in support of their comrades at headquarters, they were pinned down. In the ensuing melee, the Russians hit back with ground-to-ground missiles, and dozens of people were killed--raiders, according to the Russians; civilians, according to local residents.
The embarrassing raids caught Moscow off guard and forced commanders to shift troops besieging Grozny to the new threat. If the rebels' purpose was to shake Russian confidence, they succeeded. "It's not clear where they came from," said Major General Sergei Makarov, commander on the eastern front. "They just popped up among the civilians." General Victor Kazantsev blamed his troops' "tenderheartedness" and "groundless trust" in Chechen civilians. The response from Moscow made it clear that the top brass had been stung. Defense Minister Sergeyev sniffed that the attacks were "perfidious."