The Moscow show of toughness and competence is belied on the ground. Russian roadblocks around Grozny are where they were in the last war, less than four years ago, making it easy for Chechen fighters to work around them. While Russian generals claim to have retaken Shali and Argun, federal troops that occupy the towns by day are gone by nightfall. The only weapon Russian forces found in Shali was a telescopic sight, without the rifle. In Argun they did little better: eleven crates of weapons. Russian state-owned ORT television reported that the Chechens “temporarily hide their weapons, so that later, with the first order from their commanders, they can shoot Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry units in the back.”

Russian military and intelligence officials blame much of their failure to shut down the Chechen rebellion on Georgia and Azerbaijan, former Soviet republics on Chechnya’s southern border. The Russians accuse both countries of condoning the use of their territory by Chechen “terrorists” and charge that the Chechens are recruiting “mercenaries” in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Georgian television, however, showed film taken with a hidden camera showing Russian soldiers outside their base at Vaziani in northern Georgia transferring a large consignment of weapons and ammunition to unidentified men, presumably Chechens. Chechen fighters themselves say they have little difficulty resupplying their weaponry from Russian sources.

As Russian casualties, still largely unreported, climb, Moscow replaced two commanding generals with their deputies. (Acting President Vladimir Putin denied the change, then claimed it was only “technical”.) General Anatoly Korpunov, the air force chief who once had purloined NATO’s language to boast of “pinpoint strikes” on military structures, now speaks of using fuel-air explosives, devices that burn above the ground and consume the oxygen below, killing indiscriminately. And there is no more pretense of protecting the civilians from the terrorists. Russian forces were given orders to round up all Chechen males between 10 and 60 years of age for interrogation in “filtration” camps.

“There has never been anything like this, even in the time of Stalin, when the Chechens were deported,” said Ruslan Aushev, president of the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. He exaggerates, but he is under pressure. In Ingushetia, Chechen refugees in border camps now outnumber the settled population.