On the road leading southeast to Chechnya's capital, Grozny, a large, twisted, bullet-riddled sign greets travelers with the faded message: "Have a Nice Trip." But there's nothing pleasant about traveling into central Chechnya.
The journey from the neighboring region of Ingushetia passes through Russian-controlled territory over Jacuzzi-size potholes framed by battered buildings and fallow fields. At one point, bloated cow corpses dot the roadside, victims of soldiers' bullets. Oil well fires, set by Russians apparently as part of a scorched-earth policy, mark the beige hilltops to the north and south.
Chechen civilian pedestrians are outnumbered by Russian soldiers sitting atop caravans of armored tracked vehicles that churn up the thin asphalt. At one checkpoint, a string of burned-out tanks and armored cars sit in a line, as if for sale. Small military bases alternate with forlorn villages largely empty of inhabitants. Twin attack helicopters loaded with rockets patrol the highway.
Just three miles beyond a last forbidding checkpoint, puffs of white smoke appear over a low skyline of little houses and whitish apartment buildings: Grozny under a fierce bombardment. During a three-hour stretch early this afternoon, the thunder of explosions was continuous.
This is Chechnya amid a violent Russian waiting game. For several days, anticipation has grown in the Russian press and officials' public statements that an assault on the capital will come soon. Grozny is the last rebel stronghold on Chechnya's plains and the battered symbol of the struggle between a huge former superpower and a tiny, impoverished breakaway region.
No one knows when or if the Russians will try to take Grozny on the ground. Perhaps defenders will simply fade away first. But in the meantime, it would be too mild to say the artillery barrage is merely softening up the target. Howitzers on hilltops, multiple-launched Grad rockets hidden behind rises, and tanks dug into dirt berms blast residential and industrial areas alike. From hilltops between the farming communities of Pobedinskoye and Pervomaiskaya, through today's hazy air, it appeared that the southern district of Chernorechnye and outlying industrial areas were the main targets.
No airstrikes took place, although residents of Pobedinskoye said they are not uncommon. "Just wait for the artillery to go quiet, and then soon the jets will come," said one.
In Grozny, Mayor Lecha Dudayev said that overnight shelling was the fiercest yet. "The city has been virtually ripped by bombs," he said.
Russian leaders have been issuing hints that Grozny's fall is only days away. Today, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin predicted that the entire Chechnya ground operation is near an end. "Near, yes, it is near, I can assure you," he said. "But we shall fix no deadline, we shall fix no time limits. We shall not time the antiterrorist operation to coincide with any dates or holidays. We shall act on the basis of military and political expediency. Our main consideration is to spare the lives of our soldiers and of civilians."
Defense Ministry officials told the Interfax news agency that preparations for an attack on Grozny are finished. Sniper units and field engineers have been sent to Grozny, but it remains unclear what sort of assault is planned. Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, commander of forces in the North Caucasus, told reporters that a massive storming of the capital is unnecessary.
"There are not many militants in Grozny now and they have been rushing from one end of the city to another," he said. Russian forces are advancing slowly because "they are waiting for us to go ahead so that our tanks will be burning like torches having been exploded on mines," he added.
On the northern edge of Grozny, Valery Rybakov, commander of a motorized rifle regiment, said duels took place between rebels and Russian forces beginning at 7 this morning. The defenders are using rifles, machine guns and mortars, he said.
The Russian answer was artillery. Rybakov also repeated the Russian contention that the Chechens are prepared to use primitive chemical weapons made of chlorine and ammonia to halt the Russian advance.
Such predictions of chemical warfare have been heard from the Russians with sinister frequency in recent weeks. Today, officials said the Chechens are not only laying chemical mines, but are disguised as Russian police as they do so. Chechen officials countered that if anyone employs such weapons, it will be the Russians, whose technologies were developed in Soviet times.
The war is also raging in the mountainous south, Russian reports said. Russian paratroops are trying to gain control of the main road south into Georgia, which Moscow asserts is a major supply and infiltration route.
In any event, today's shelling of Grozny seemed to be the concrete manifestation of a threat issued in the form of an ultimatum earlier this month. In leaflets dropped over Grozny, the Russians warned civilians to leave or die in a hail of bombs. Few civilians have left, in part because heavy shelling has made them afraid to leave their basement shelters. Two exits, northwest and southwest toward Ingushetia, are subject to shelling close to Grozny. The road through Pobedinskoye is closed to refugees. Estimates of the numbers of civilians in Grozny go as high as 40,000.
One woman from Pervomaiskaya had trudged for three days to the checkpoint near Pobedinskoye to make contact with relatives who had fled to Ingushetia. Today, they arrived. Amid hugs, she recounted days of shelling that kept her and her mother pinned inside a basement, waiting for a break. The Russians took Pervomaiskaya last week. The tearful reunion at the border did not move the soldiers; they refused to let the woman pass through the roadblock for safety in Ingushetia.
"The humanitarian corridor goes over these mountains," said an officer named Fyodor, pointing to a ridge to the north. "There is no exit here."