THE latest brutal Russian assault on southern Chechenia, in contravention of a pre-election peace deal, may be a prelude to an "Afghan option" in which Moscow pulls out most of its troops and leaves a well-armed local Government to cope by itself, according to two senior generals.
The man to declare a latest shift in policy towards the breakaway republic should be Aleksandr Lebed, the Russian security chief, who is expected to visit Chechenia in the next few days.
In their continuing assault on a series of rebel-controlled villages, Russian forces yesterday again used air power and artillery, both of which are ruled out in a peace treaty signed on June 10 during the presidential election campaign.
During fighting in the mountainous Shatoi region, the Russians said 60 Chechen fighters had been killed, while Movladi Udugov, a Chechen spokesman, said 150 Russian soldiers had died. Neither claim could be independently verified.
Last week NTV television reported at least 20 civilian deaths and widespread devastation in the village of Makhkety after similar air raids. The village has seen destruction like this before. A famous scene in Leo Tolstoy's tale of the Caucasian wars, Hadji Murat, describes how Makhkety is raided and burnt by Russian soldiers in 1852.
Sergei Kovalyov, the former dissident and leading critic of the Chechen war, denounced President Yeltsin and General Lebed last week for hypocrisy. "I knew from the start that your promises were a lie," he said in a letter written from a hospital bed where he is recovering from a heart attack. "But the country believed you. Both of you deceived 40 million voters who supported you."
General Lebed used to be a fierce critic of the Chechen war, but he has so far endorsed the latest intensification in the fighting. However, two former comrades of the general, interviewed last week, were cautiously optimistic that his visit to the breakaway republic could be part of a pre-planned scenario in which he announces peace.
When Eduard Vorobyov resigned as deputy commander of Russian land forces at the beginning of the Chechen war, one of the first men to ring him up with words of support was General Lebed.
"Lebed is waiting for a defeat to be inflicted on the rebels," General Vorobyov said on Friday. The security chief would then visit the republic and announce that Russia was sticking to the main point of the June peace plan: a gradual withdrawal of forces, who would hand over responsibility to the local Chechen police and a small number of Interior Ministry troops.
From Moscow's point of view, this strategy would solve two conflicting problems: the television news would stop reporting the deaths of young soldiers, while the rebels, weakened by the latest heavy assaults, would not immediately be assured of seizing power. In essence, it is a repeat of the "Afghan option" in which Moscow pulled out of Afghanistan only after arming its proxy Government, which then managed to cling on to power.
Ruslan Aushev, an Afghan War veteran and Hero of the Soviet Union, who is President of the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, said the new offensive was a "mechanism of pressure" on the rebels. But he thought the strategy was dangerous and the rebels were not easily beaten.
Having served with General Lebed in Afghanistan, he said he also believed in the security chief's character, but said he was being ensnared by unfamiliar Kremlin politics. "He has not been properly informed," Mr Aushev said.