To understand Russia's ruthless campaign in Chechnya, perhaps all you need to do is understand Viktor, and the insecurities and ambitions that drive him and a whole generation of Russian officers and politicians. A career Russian soldier, now a lieutenant colonel, with decorations from Afghanistan and the first Chechen war, Viktor's soft voice belies his burly build. He's no fool, though, and so initially in talking to me--a Western academic--about changes in the Russian military, he offers the party line, praising opportunities for cooperation with the West and stressing how the new Russian army is a world apart from the old Soviet one.

But an hour and several drinks later, Viktor's tone has changed. Talk of military cooperation gives way to dark suspicions of potential threats from the Islamic world, from China, from Europe. He envies NATO's military technology, he says. But ultimately, he resents and mistrusts the West, convinced that it is scheming to deny Russia its rightful place on the world stage. He wears his Russian nationalism on his sleeve, illustrated with historical allusions. His vote in next Sunday's parliamentary elections, he says, will go to the candidate who will best protect Russian interests.

Insecurity, nationalism, history, politics. From this explosive mix the latest Chechen war has emerged. Moscow's bombing campaign began in late August. The first of what would be 100,000 troops entered the breakaway region Oct. 1, in search of "bandits." Within a week, Moscow's stated objective was to regain control of the region. Viktor and his unit are in the war zone now, presumably assembling their tanks, guns and missile launchers around Grozny, the Chechen capital, which Moscow announced last week it will level.

Grozny--the name means "terrible" or "dread"--was built as a Russian bastion after the Chechens were conquered by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. The city was meant to act as a warning to the Chechens not to challenge imperial power. At the end of the 20th century, it looks as though Moscow means to make an example of the city again, for much the same reasons.

There is an almost medieval aspect to this war, and that confounds many outsiders. As Russian planes scattered leaflets across Grozny last Monday, warning civilians to flee or be destroyed with their city, foreign analysts were asking: Can Moscow really mean it? Or is this some piece of psychological warfare? A political stunt?

I have spent too much time talking with the Viktors and other Russian soldiers, as well as members of the security apparatus and their advisers, to doubt that Moscow means what it says.

Russia's insecurity is both general and specific. It feels slighted over Kosovo, denied the voice it thought it deserved as NATO highhandedly staged a war with only token attention to Russian concerns. But Kosovo was a catalyst for, not a cause of, this disillusionment with the West. For years, the Kremlin has been drifting back into the hands of people who neither understand nor like the West. Many are veterans of the Soviet KGB or other police agencies (including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his two immediate predecessors). Their bugbear is a "monopolar" world dominated by the United States and its allies. To them, Moscow is on its own and must look after its own interests. On a visit to a Russian military academy, I saw a poster that said "Russia has no friends except for its army and navy." It's a 105-year-old quote from Czar Alexander III.

This generation of Russian leaders is particularly concerned about Russia's southern flank, the North Caucasus. Unruly, Muslim, multiethnic, yet also vital for access to the area's oil, the region and its peoples have been a perennial worry for Moscow. The Chechens have long been the most independent and recalcitrant of subjects. Stalin had the entire nation's population deported in 1944, scattering them across Siberia and Central Asia. From 1994 until 1996, a raggle-taggle collection of Chechen guerrillas took on the Russian army in the first Chechen war--and won. So the current war is not just about a threat to Russia's security, it is also about pride and vengeance, historical enmities and raw Russian nationalism.

Even so, that doesn't explain why Moscow has launched this war now, or its sudden escalation. The key to understanding this is politics. Officially, the war was triggered by Islamic fighters launching raids from Chechnya into neighboring Dagestan in August, and by deadly explosions in Moscow and elsewhere, for which the government blames Chechen terrorists.

But Moscow's official reasons for starting the war make little sense. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov had made real headway in controlling the most extreme rebel element, in quiet but effective partnership with the Russians. Indeed, Russian security analysts and the general staff at first interpreted the raids into Dagestan as a sign of desperation on the part of the Chechen rebels. One Russian policeman I knew, involved in cross-border cooperation with Grozny, was frankly exultant: "This is the beginning of the end for them," he said last summer. "It means that they have nowhere to go in Chechnya."

That was then. Next Sunday, Russians will choose representatives to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. The Duma has little real power, but the vote will be a curtain raiser for the main event, the presidential election next June. Putin, despite his status as Boris Yeltsin's chosen successor, was until recently languishing with approval ratings so low as to be statistically meaningless. A former KGB agent who reputedly felt that the only reason the first Chechen war failed was a lack of determination, Putin needed something dramatic to establish his presidential credentials. That something was this war.

And the politicians aren't the only ones playing politics in Russia. Anatoly Kvashnin, the military's chief of the general staff, is a formidable general and veteran of the first Chechen war. He was locked in competition with the defense minister over control of the military and desperate to find ways to force the Kremlin to provide the increased funding it was always promising but never providing.

The result was an unholy pact. Russian intelligence sources have confirmed for me that it went something like this: Kvashnin would give Putin a victorious little war. In return, Kvashnin expected a higher profile for the general staff; funding that would more than cover the cost of the invasion; and a completely free hand to fight the war as he saw fit, free of political interference. A deal was struck on Sept. 20 with a final proviso: If it could all be done without too many Russian casualties--never a vote winner--Putin would get a suitable victory just before the Duma elections. Thus, war returned to the Caucasus.

So far, both sides of the bargain have been kept. Since the war began, the government has promised to increase the defense budget by $1 billion, or more than 25 percent. Meanwhile Kvashnin has assembled a 100,000-strong sledgehammer of a force in Chechnya, which is less than half the size of Maryland.

Russia's ultimatum to Grozny expired yesterday, and the Russians could begin their attack at any moment. By the time they go to the polls, there should be a Russian flag fluttering over the center of Grozny, or so I've heard in my talks with advisers to the general staff. Then Putin can claim that the military phase of the operation is over, and all that is left is a "police action" against remaining rebel stragglers. If they are to meet this tight timetable, the Russians will have to start a major offensive within the next few days.

During previous international crises, from Desert Storm to the first Chechen war to Kosovo, there have been differences of opinion within the Russian political and military elites, even if just over priorities and methods. Now a consensus is forming between the Kremlin and the generals, which share the same interests and instincts. Under these circumstances, there is little the outside world can do. To the politicians and the general staff alike, Chechnya is little more than their Kosovo, a piece of necessary disinfection. They see Western warnings of retaliation as driven by hypocrisy and a vindictive desire to belittle Russia and prevent it from protecting its legitimate security interests. These days, I find that even relatively liberal and well-informed Russians bristle when talk turns to human rights violations in Chechnya. They ask, what about Russia's rights? What about civilian casualties caused by NATO attacks in Kosovo?

Given that the West is not prepared to cause a serious and long-lasting breach with Russia over Chechnya, the future of the Chechens is in their own hands. That Grozny will fall is not really in doubt. Then many--perhaps most--rebels will slip away toward the mountains of southern Chechnya. There they can wage a war of their own choosing, sniping and raiding, as they wear down Russian troops. After all, most of Afghanistan was easily seized by the Soviets in 1979--it was the subsequent "police action" to pacify the country that Moscow was eventually forced to abandon 10 years later.

Viktor and his compatriots will not be able to rely forever on their air power and artillery. Eventually, they will have to engage with rebel fighters described even in an internal general staff document as "skilled, determined and ferocious bandits."

That describes Ali well. He was a grizzled Chechen I met once in Moscow; as a survivor of Stalin's deportation, of the Soviet army and a gunman for the local Chechen mafia, Ali was returning to Chechnya to join the rebels. I wrote off 90 percent of his tales as braggadocio, until a police officer told me matter-of-factly, "He has personally killed four mafia godfathers and never even been seen by his victims' bodyguards." Ali made no apologies for his martial spirit: "We Chechens have been fighting the Russians so long we will almost miss them when they are gone."

Whether Russia will be able to pacify Chechnya in the long term is anyone's guess. But for now, I can't help but think that the Viktors will meet their match in the likes of Ali. In his own way, Ali and his people seem as much eager captives of their bloody history as Viktor and his.

Mark Galeotti is the director of the Organised Russian & Eurasian Crime Research Unit at Keele University in Staffordshire, England.