In this little town in the Russian-occupied zone of northern Chechnya, Moscow's struggle for civilian hearts and minds went sour the other day.

Russian Information Minister Mikhail Lesin pulled into Shelkovskaya with an entourage of dignitaries Wednesday to try to show how life had turned better for Chechens now that the Russian army had returned to the rebellious southern region. Three years ago, Moscow's troops were expelled in a bitter separatist war.

No sooner did the visitors arrive in the central square than a chorus of women screamed out against the occupation. Things had been terrible since the Russian troops arrived, the women shouted. "Where is the electricity? We are not permitted to leave town. Drunken troops shoot up our neighborhoods at night."

Lesin turned red with anger. His Chechen opponents "are tricky," he told reporters as the complaints grew ever louder. "They infiltrate agents to make this scandal."

Russia sent its troops back into Chechnya three weeks ago, and they currently occupy roughly the northern third of the territory. But unlike the 1994-96 conflict, which ended with Chechnya's de facto independence from Moscow, the Russians this time have vowed to win not only the war but also the devotion of a suspicious and hostile Chechen population.

Yet the nature of the war thus far makes winning civilian support difficult. In advance of the Russian offensive by 50,000 troops, towns and hamlets were struck indiscriminately by bombs from warplanes, artillery shells and rocket barrages. Scores of civilians have been killed, even before Thursday's rocket attack on the Chechen capital of Grozny, and more than 150,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Ingushetia.

For Russia's self-image, as well as its standing in the world, it is important that its troops appear to be welcome in Chechnya. The Russian federation, to which Chechnya nominally belongs, is supposed to be a collection of districts and regions joined by common agreement. Mere conquest of Chechnya would mean that in this little corner of Russia, at least, the Kremlin gave up on the concept of rule by consent of the governed.

Russian officials insist that the offensive is intended only to liquidate terrorists. The Russian government blames the Chechens for guerrilla assaults in the neighboring region of Dagestan and for a series of apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities in September that killed more than 300 people.

Russian officials say they aim to restore peaceful life to Chechnya. Pensions will be paid, utilities brought back to life, commerce renewed, all under the caring hand of Moscow. A new government will be installed to replace that of the elected president, Aslan Maskhadov.

The northern "security zone" is supposed to be a model for things to come. Lesin brought a group of foreign reporters to visit the area this week. The critical response of Chechens in Shelkovskaya, about 30 miles northeast of Grozny, the regional capital, was especially disheartening, because Shelkovskaya has always been wary of the Chechen rebels. The Russians did not need to fire a shot to enter the town.

The Russians "beat my son like a dog because he didn't have identification with him," said Ghiberto Epsirhamov, a retiree. "We didn't like the Russians when they came, and we like them less now."

Residents complained that the Russian media paint a rosy picture of an awful situation. "We laugh at their reports," said Nazmudin Nirzaev, a former policeman in the town. "What peace is there here if we are surrounded by tanks and guards and can't even go across the river to buy cigarettes?"

In response to Chechen complaints that villages were being flattened by Russian bombs, Lt. Gen. Gennady Troshev, the eastern front commander, said: "My soldiers are being killed by bandits. What do you want me to do, stand and do nothing?"

Russian forces are trying to seal off northern Chechnya with a series of camps and fortified positions. Just to the west of Shelkovskaya, a new base camp was established this week, and soldiers there were edgy.

Chechen forces may have been driven south, but Russian soldier Ruslan Tashbaltayev and his AK-47 faced north. "We know the enemy can come from anywhere. They travel like jackals in bands of four to eight. They move where they want, so we have to be ready in all directions," said the young man from St. Petersburg, whose head barely popped up above his trench.

Nearby, in dug-in armored vehicles, soldiers with antitank guns at the ready scanned dirt paths leading to the camp. The troops readily acknowledged they can't tell the difference between the "terrorists" they are chasing and any other Chechen. "We will have to set up a passport control system," said Mikhail Bogadkin, 20, of Nizhny Novgorod.

The Russian advance to the Terek River has been relatively easy. The flat, bare terrain north of the river favors Russia's armored columns, and the air force is in total command of the skies. But skirmishes have erupted along the river, keeping the Russians off balance as they decide whether to press farther into the region. So far, Russian officials say 196 soldiers have been killed.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has enjoyed a surge of popularity for his handling of the war, visited Chechnya to tour a pacified village. Only selected Russian reporters were allowed along for the ride.

At a news conference in Mozdok, a military staging area just outside Chechnya, Putin added a new twist to a public debate over whether Russian troops will try to seize Grozny. He said the troops would advance only into Chechen areas already cleared of civilians. "Civilians are leaving," he said ominously. "We will do all we can to ensure that civilians are not in areas of military action."

He also introduced a new administrator for Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, who was a Moscow loyalist during the first Chechen war. Koshman predicted hard times for Grozny. "I think we should rebuild the capital somewhere else," he said. "It is going to be impossible to repair."