When Russian forces destroy the Chechen capital and occupy its ruins, many will look back on last week’s capture of Urus-Martan as a fulcrum of the war. It was a symbolic as well as a military victory.

If Urus-Martan had fallen to the hand of God and not the hand of Vladimir Putin, Chechnya’s president might have said a prayer of thanks.

Since the war of 1994-1996, Urus-Martan has been the center for Chechnya’s most radical field commanders and most militant warlords. In particular it was the base for Mullah Bagauddin, an Islamic fundamentalist from Dagestan, who advocated that republic’s secession from Russia. It was as well a center for trade in hostages, the headquarters for the group that just one year ago kidnapped and later beheaded three Britons and a New Zealander, employees of a telecommunications company. Until the Russian attack brought them together two months ago, Chechnya’s elected President Aslan Maskhadov and the Urus-Martan warlords were in a state of near civil war.

The refusal of the warlords to accept Maskhadov’s authority, Maskhadov’s inability to assert it, and Russia’s unwillingness to strengthen Maskhadov against his enemies, are all causes of the present disaster.

Urus-Martan is also the home of Bislan Gantemirov, an ex-warlord who served briefly as mayor of Grozny during Russian rule in 1995. The Russians jailed Gantemirov for embezzlement in 1996 but pardoned him in November. Russian propaganda claims that the forces that took Urus-Martan included a pro-Gantemirov militia. The pardon and the propaganda tip Gantemirov as the Russian puppet slated to be the next president of Chechnya. He is likely to have even less success than Maskhadov in bringing the governed to consent to the rule of their governors.