Chechnya, besieged and bombarded for the second time in five years by powerful Russian military forces, is trying desperately to avert further warfare but thus far has had no success.
Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has been devising peace proposals for delivery to Moscow and the world at large, but no one has answered them. His people plead that no matter what crimes Chechen outlaws may have committed against Russia, common citizens are not to blame. Chechnya's armed defenders proclaim themselves ready to fight and repel Russian troops but lament that their young lives are again threatened by all-out war.
The general unease raises the question of whether this tiny separatist region in the Russian Caucasus can again muster the strength and will to fight off a onetime superpower a hundred times its size--a nation that seems eager to avenge the humiliating defeat inflicted on it by rebel forces in the 1994-1996 war, which left Chechnya effectively as self-governing territory. Today, this poverty-ridden region 1,000 miles south of Moscow is rife with political divisions and clan suspicions, but Chechen leaders insist that unity in the face of the Russian threat can overcome morale problems.
In the two weeks since the Kremlin launched its offensive, Russian infantry and armored units have established control over the relatively flat northern third of Chechnya. But each day brings fresh evidence that the Russians intend to push farther south, beyond the Terek River, and reoccupy a larger part, if not all, of the region.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has insisted that Chechnya "was and is" part of Russia, said today that Russian troops intend to expand the military zone of occupation, but he did not elaborate.
At the same time, Chechen sources said that Russian troops and Chechen defenders skirmished south of the Terek, providing further evidence that the Russian offensive is continuing. The clashes were said to have taken place near the town of Goragovsky, a few miles northwest of Grozny, the capital, which itself lies just 15 miles south of the Terek. The Chechens said that the Russian troops involved in the fighting entered the territory from the Russian regions of Ingushetia and North Ossetia, to the west of Chechnya, rather than trying to cross the Terek in force.
Late last week, Russian warplanes struck here in the Chechen hamlet of Elistanzhi, magnifying the sense of hopelessness among rural civilians who cannot understand why they were targeted. Forty men, women and children were killed, mud-brick homes collapsed in jumbles, and trucks and tractors were set ablaze.
Elistanzhi is on the eastern edge of Chechnya, near the Russian region of Dagestan, where Moscow has said it is targeting the bases of Chechen "terrorists" who have crossed the border. Dazed villagers carried pictures of the dead to show one another. One of the victims had a chest full of World War II Soviet medals; another had been awarded prizes for food production. "These are the bandits Russia says it is after," said Ahmad Apazov, a nephew of the decorated veteran. "Why doesn't anyone care about this? Someone can turn a hero into a terrorist, kill him and no one can object."
Although Russia was reviled for the air attack, some residents of this devastated area said they share a sense of guilt over things Chechens did to bring on the conflict. Foremost among them, in this view, are the activities of guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev, a heroic figure during the first war who led an armed force into Dagestan two months ago with the stated intention of establishing an Islamic state there. He has also been accused by Russian authorities of organizing bomb attacks on apartment buildings in Russia that killed 300 civilians.
"We don't want any part of that," said Sultan Bolgayev, a farmer. "We just want to be left alone. What do we care about Dagestan? Let them take care of their own problems."
A group of men nearby debated whether Maskhadov ought to try to arrest Basayev. The consensus: The president is too weak. "All he rules is the presidential palace," said one. "Nothing can be done. This isn't the independence we fought for."
Maskhadov was elected president in 1997 after Chechnya's two-year war with Moscow, which left the region in ruins. In central Grozny, only Maskhadov's headquarters has been restored; the rest of the city center is a collection of burned-out buildings, heaps of mortar and twisted steel.
Today, Maskhadov appeared at a news conference that resonanted with frustration. He has offered to talk with President Boris Yeltsin, he said, but Yeltsin has not answered. He has formulated a plan for a pan-Caucasus anti-terrorist force, he said, but no regional leader has taken him up on it. "In a nutshell," he said, "there is war, no matter how hard I try to avoid it."
Maskhadov's political program was based on completing peace talks with Moscow that--according to a timetable set after the first war--were to be concluded within five years. The talks have gone nowhere.
"I thought in the first war, Russia was brought to reason," he said. "But Russia wants to use military means against a little nation. They want a small, victorious war. My problem has been trying to talk to them, and now I find myself in an awkward situation with my people."
To organize Chechen defenses, Maskhadov has reunited with political enemies, including Basayev, whom he named as one of three main commanders. He excused himself for naming Basayev, saying: "He is an ordinary Chechen. Basayev is a volunteer. If he volunteered to fight in Dagestan, well, Russians had volunteers in Kosovo, and no one is bombing them."
CAPTION: Two men survey the damage in Elistanzhi, a Chechen village that was attacked by Russian warplanes last week.