Top Russian officials issued increasingly contradictory signals about the war in Chechnya today, suggesting confusion at the highest levels here about the next steps, both political and military.
Two senior officials, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and a top aide to President Boris Yeltsin, announced that Russia was eager to start negotiations on the separatist region in southern Russia. But they were contradicted by a senior security official, Internal Affairs Minister Vladimir Rushaylo.
The Russian military leadership also continued to show signs of strain over whether the generals fighting in Chechnya would object to negotiations.
The conflicting statements came as Russian planes and artillery continued to pound Chechnya. The army said it was on the verge of moving into Chechnya's second-largest city, Gudermes, while also intensively bombing a one-time Soviet missile base in Bamut, in southwestern Chechnya.
In part, the confusion appears to reflect a mixed reaction to Western criticism over the refugee tide fleeing the war into neighboring Ingushetia, and to charges that Russian forces have used indiscriminate force against civilians. The conflicting signals also appear to reflect genuine rifts in the military in the face of harsh winter weather and a looming manpower problem.
The two officials who made overtures about negotiations attached conditions that Chechens would reject. Still, their remarks signaled a shift in tone. Foreign Minister Ivanov, in Helsinki for a regional conference, said Russia is interested in ending the Chechen offensive soon.
"We are interested in quickly ending the anti-terrorist operations and starting the process for a political settlement," he said. In Moscow, Igor Shabdurasulov, a top aide to Yeltsin, said it is "necessary, possible and extremely desirable to discuss a political settlement of the situation surrounding Chechnya" if the rebellious region would agree to remain part of Russia.
But no sooner had these comments been made than Rushaylo, the internal affairs minister, rejected negotiations with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. "Maskhadov is now on a level with the bandits," said Rushaylo, who oversees the Interior Ministry troops fighting in Chechnya. "Until the terrorists on the territory of Chechnya are eliminated, military actions will continue."
In another puzzling comment, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev appeared to change his view that Russian troops would occupy Chechnya "for a long time" and would not stop fighting until "all of Chechnya" is taken. Today he said "there is a chance the operation will be over by the end of the year."
Another point of friction exits within the military. Sergeyev and the chief of the general staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, had to issue a rare public denial of a split between them earlier this week.
Maj. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, who commands the Russian forces on the western front with Chechnya, said last week that any effort to stop the operations would result in a military revolt. But Sergeyev insisted today that Shamanov would follow orders. "He is a subordinate, and is and will be under control," Sergeyev said.
Alexander Goltz, military correspondent for the weekly news magazine Itogi, said the Russian army leaders may be trying to force the political leadership to make a decision about whether to continue the war. He said the military is facing two major logistical problems: winter weather has descended on the region, making further advances more difficult; and about 40 percent of the troops are soon to be rotated out at the end of their tour, to be replaced with younger and less experienced conscripts.
Goltz said the military and political leaders now face a difficult dilemma. "No one is thinking about the victory of this operation," said Goltz. "God knows what victory is."