Stalin in 1944 deported the Chechens. Boris Yeltsin tries to kill them in their homes.

A new attack seems imminent. In response to guerrilla incursions from Chechnya into Dagestan, and horrible bombings that have killed 300 people in residential buildings in Moscow and elsewhere, the Russian government has launched an air assault on Chechnya. Though the prime minister denies it (the defense minister does not), preparations for a ground attack are well under way.

The Russian Air Force in the past week carried out well over 100 bombing raids on Chechnya. This week two battalions equipped with tanks and flame-throwers should arrive in Dagestan, where some 30,000 Russian troops are stationed on Chechnya’s border.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said “we should not confuse the bandits at work in Chechnya with the Chechen people, who are also their victims.” But his warning seems unlikely to have much effect.

In Moscow, where Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has never dismantled the old Soviet system of residence permits, authorities have picked up and forced from the city thousands of unregistered people from the Caucasus. Most of these came to Moscow as refugees from the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya, which killed perhaps 40,000 Chechen civilians and left hundreds of thousands without homes or livelihoods.

The popular press, controlled by Russia’s tycoons, wants war. The front page of the country’s largest daily advises: “Chechnya should be presented with an ultimatum: Either they cease all military action on Russian territory, or they face the physical extermination of the whole republic using strategic air strikes, biological weapons, psychotropic gases, napalm and everything at the disposal of our one powerful army.”

That attitude will ensure a repetition of the mistakes of the past. There is no authority in Chechnya today, not Russian nor Chechen either. When Russia, its forces defeated, withdrew from Chechnya in late 1996, the peace accord provided for Russian assistance for the reconstruction of the shattered province. Perhaps if that assistance had been forthcoming, General Aslan Maskhadov, elected Chechnya’s president in January 1997, could have been able to impose a semblance of order. But the assistance never came. Maskhadov never established his authority over the field commanders, each of whom operates independently, with his own band of armed supporters. It is likely that the field commanders receive subsidies from Islamic militants abroad that exceed the flow of funds from the Russian government into the still nominally Russian territory.

Russia’s armed forces have scarcely improved in the past two years and are no more capable now than in 1996 of defeating the Chechen guerrillas in the mountains of the Caucasus. But even if Russia could mount an air campaign comparable in scope and precision to NATO’s attack on Serbia, there is no Slobodan Milosevic in Chechnya-there is no one who can capitulate. On the contrary: The surrender of Chechnya’s nominal government would only strengthen guerrilla commanders like Shamil Basaev and Khattab, who led the recent fighting in Dagestan.

General Aleksandr Lebed, negotiator of the 1996 peace accord with the Chechens and now governor of Krasnoyarsk, got it exactly right when he told an interviewer: “For three years no one has done anything, and the vacuum was filled in for us.” It is probably too late, militarily and politically, to strengthen President Maskhadov. With no one in charge in Chechnya and blood lust running in Russia, a tragedy of possibly genocidal scale seems in the making.