On the last day of 1994, the Russian army's 131st Maikop Brigade rolled out of the hills and advanced on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The brigade reached the airport, then headed for the central railroad station--and a death trap.

The tanks and armored troop carriers were surrounded and blown apart by Chechen rebel fighters. Hundreds of Russian soldiers, without effective infantry protection, were burned and shot in a devastating ambush, the opening battle of what would become a searing humiliation for the Russian military.

The commander of the forces in the northern Caucasus, which included the armored columns sent into Grozny, was Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin. Today, nearly five years later, Russian troops are poised on the same hills outside Grozny. And they are again under the command of Kvashnin, now chief of the Russian general staff.

But Kvashnin and the Russian military are fighting a different kind of war this time. Instead of a by-the-book, Soviet-style onslaught of tanks and infantry, Kvashnin has pounded the breakaway region with bombs and artillery, keeping most of the troops to the rear. He has tripled the size of the force from the 1994-96 war to 100,000 troops, and has demanded a free hand from politicians, reportedly threatening to resign if they meddle.

After years of decline, the Russian military appears to be exercising, at least temporarily, serious political clout. Not only is the war in Chechnya popular in public opinion polls, but according to Russian and Western analysts, Kvashnin's army has won a measure of independence and a commitment of resources not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Kvashnin appears to have overshadowed Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev in power and influence, and they have often been at odds. And the 53-year-old general's drive for a more assertive military has found a crucial ally in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent who seems to have tapped into public longing for a strongman. Putin's stratospheric popularity ratings are based largely on Kvashnin's offensive in Chechnya.

For the West, the ascendancy of the Russian generals has important implications. Many in the military leadership resent Russia's experiment with democracy and free markets, and are furious about NATO's expansion and the U.S. determination to build an antiballistic missile system over the objections of Russia, China and even U.S. allies. They cheered Kvashnin this summer for engineering the surprise dash of a small group of Russian troops to the airport in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, in the first hours after the surrender of Serb-led Yugoslav forces.

But whether the military emerges stronger and more influential may hinge on its fortunes in Chechnya. In the last war, Russian troops were forced to withdraw and Chechnya declared its independence. This time, the military campaign has not faced serious opposition. The Chechen Islamic rebels, who struck unexpectedly with raids into the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan in August, have offered only sporadic resistance, although it has intensified in recent days. The public's approval of the war may be severely tested if Russian troops enter Grozny.

A New Battle Plan In the early phase of this Chechen conflict, the general staff and military intelligence drew up a battle plan that signaled an important change in tactics. According to a source familiar with the plan, it called for a "non-contact" offensive, relying on an aerial bombing campaign and increased use of artillery and rockets while minimizing combat with the Chechen combatants.

To some degree, the Russian plan appears to have emulated the reliance on air power by NATO forces during the war against Yugoslavia this year. But there are significant differences, analysts said. The allied forces never began a ground operation in Kosovo, while the Russian troops are already occupying positions in Chechnya cleared by bombing. The Russians lack the level of "smart" weaponry that NATO deployed, and their targets are more elusive.

In contrast to the earlier war in Chechnya, when inexperienced conscripts were sent to the front lines, the Russians are using more experienced soldiers, such as paratroops, riot police units and kontraktniki, or hired soldiers, while keeping the bulk of the younger conscripts in the rear.

"They've asked the question, 'What troops are capable of doing what?' " said a Western specialist. "They've changed the tactics to match what they have to work with."

In addition to the quality of troops, Russian commanders have insisted on quantity. Mark Galeotti, director of the Organized Russian and Eurasian Crime Research Unit at Keele University in England and an expert on the Russian military, noted that Moscow has sent nearly 100,000 men to Chechnya, almost as many as the Soviet Union committed to Afghanistan in the 1980s. By comparison, the Russian force in Chechnya during the first war numbered 40,000 at its peak, and was often not more than 30,000. The size of the Chechen forces is unknown; estimates range from 5,000 to 15,000.

Since the offensive began, the military has waged a vigorous propaganda campaign supported by much of the Russian news media, a sharp contrast to the last war, when the media brought back vivid and critical reports from the battlefield.

Despite the effort to minimize Russian losses and reporting about them, military casualties have mounted in three months of fighting and may well be higher than official reports suggest. Both Russian and Western analysts say the official totals do not include soldiers who die later in hospitals. Before the recent battle for the city of Argun, Russia said it had lost 464 soldiers and had about 1,500 wounded since the fighting began. Chechen casualties are unknown.

The Military's Decline Although Russian troops have made gains in recent weeks, one factor has not changed: The military is still weakened by years of decline. To assemble the large force around Chechnya, Kvashnin and his generals had to scour barracks across Russia. Analysts note that they brought in smaller battalions and companies, scavenging wherever they could.

"They do not have complete units" to move to Chechnya, noted the Western analyst. "That's how difficult it is to cobble it together. They took the best pieces of what was left."

In recent years, reform of the Russian army has largely meant consolidation and demobilization. The reductions were supposed to have leveled off at a 1.2 million-man force, but most analysts say the size of the military will decrease further. Plans for fully professional armed forces have been all but scrapped; conscription chronically falls short of its goals.

A shortage of experienced troops could mean that a scheduled rotation of soldiers who have finished their duty in Chechnya could remove veterans and replace them with fresh conscripts, despite promises from the Kremlin that new recruits would not be sent into battle.

The Russians also lack the "smart" weaponry now common in the American arsenal. Still, unlike in 1996, commanders have made use of a large missile force. The Chechens have claimed, and Western sources confirm, that Russia launched older Scud C surface-to-surface missiles, as well as Tochka tactical missiles, at the Chechens. Russian officials also have hinted they are deploying a new combat helicopter, the Ka-50 Black Shark, although some observers speculate that the reports are a way to promote the weapon for export sales.

Political Autonomy Even at its lowest points, the Russian military leadership has not challenged civilian control, nor does it appear to be doing so now. But generals involved in the Chechnya campaign are carving out an unusual amount of political autonomy and clout.

When there was a hint recently of a possible negotiation with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, the reaction from the generals in Chechnya was immediate. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, commander of the Russian forces on the western front with Chechnya, said: "If the army is stopped, there will be a powerful exodus of officers of different ranks, generals included, from the armed forces. Russia's officer corps may not survive another slap in the face." Shamanov was given the Hero of Russia award by the Kremlin in recent days.

Russian officials said that Kvashnin also privately sent a draft of his resignation to the Kremlin, but that President Boris Yeltsin refused to sign it. "Yeltsin is too vulnerable," said a Russian defense analyst familiar with the events. "He can't alienate the generals.

"Now, as never before, they are close to becoming an independent political force. Not in the sense of a coup, but they definitely want to play their own games, to pursue the policy they want, whether it is in Chechnya, or planes over Iceland [in exercises last summer], or Pristina. The real test will be when the political leadership has do to something different than Kvashnin wants. Should they seize Grozny? Should they stop in the south? At that point, the political leadership will have to make a decision. It is grounds for concern."

For most of his career, Kvashnin has been associated with armored troops. He graduated from the Russian armored troops academy and moved up through the ranks --commander of a tank regiment, division commander, army commander and senior deputy chief of staff at general headquarters. After the disastrous storming of Grozny in 1995, Kvashnin became head of the North Caucasus Military District, which put him in charge of the Chechen campaign.

Kvashnin is at the forefront of a post-Afghan war generation of generals in the Russian military. The earlier generation included Gen. Pavel Grachev, the former defense minister; Boris Gromov, the popular general who led the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, and late Gen. Lev Rokhlin. Some veterans of the Afghan war had openly expressed doubts about the wisdom of the first Chechen war.

This time, Kvashnin cemented his ties with Putin, according to analysts, politicians and military sources.

"Putin was the original prime mover," said Galeotti, the Russian military expert. "When he went to the military, he found a lot of generals eager to salve their reputations. Kvashnin wasn't enthused by the idea. He was at first quite skeptical the politicians would provide the money and political resources. . . . The deal was, we'll go on if we get ample money. Not just to fight the war, but to make good the losses on materiel from the first war."

"There was a commitment this time the money would be paid. That was their first price. The second price was, we do it our way, we assemble this huge force, brutal tactics, pacification by depopulation."

Russian Military at a Glance

Current total armed forces

Active: 1,004,100 (estimate by International Institute for Strategic Studies); other groups put the number as high as 1.2 million

Russian troops

currently in Chechnya: 100,000

Peak in 1994 -- 96

Chechen war: 40,000

Casualties in Chechnya:

Official Russian military number:460 killed

1994 -- 96 war:6,000 killed

Chechen casualties in current conflict:unknown

*Budget is nearing final approval. NOTE: as a practical matter, the ruble is a not convertible into other currencies.

SOURCES: Military Balance , International Institute for Strategic Studies, Duma Defense Committee; The Moscow Times