"The more the West cries foul, the harder the Russians will push," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "And with a rise in oil prices having boosted the Russian budget, even the IMF threat is unlikely to have much effect on Russia's plans." Western leaders are warning that not only will destroying the city and every living thing in it diminish Russia's international standing, but the march on Grozny may have created its own momentum. "Russian sources admit there's no military rationale for pressing ahead with an all-out assault on Grozny," says Meier. "From a strategic point of view, it makes more sense to simply lay siege to the city. But there may be a political rationale to pressing the offensive and destroying the Chechen capital." Indeed, if that can be achieved via air strikes and artillery with minimal Russian casualties it will form the centerpiece of Prime Minister Putin's campaign in parliamentary elections, which are less than two weeks away.
The West's big guns are firing off warning shots: President Clinton says Russia will have to pay a price if it carries out its threat to annihilate the population of Grozny, and Britain's Tony Blair warns Moscow that "we're watching you." But those warnings and even the IMF's decision to withhold its latest aid installment because of Russia's campaign appear to have had little impact on Moscow. Despite Monday's ultimatum by the Russian military that civilians should leave Grozny by Saturday or else "be destroyed," Russian forces continued their heavy shelling of the city Tuesday, making it impossible for civilians sheltering in the city to leave.