- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2000

MOSCOW Rebels defending Grozny delivered new setbacks to Russian forces yesterday, belying acting President Vladimir Putin's claim on Russian radio that the campaign for the Chechen capital was "going smoothly" despite earlier military mistakes.
Rebel commanders claimed they had beaten off a Russian attack near a canning factory in the northwest of the city. Reports reaching Moscow also suggested that rebels in the Shroi area were making headway in a bid to break through Chechnya's eastern border into Dagestan.
Civilians who arrived in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia from Grozny yesterday described worsening conditions in Grozny, with food supplies low and residents forced to remain in basements to avoid Russian bombs. More than 180 bombing raids had been carried out in the past 24 hours, the Interfax news agency reported.
Casualties on both sides appear to be rising, although Russian military commanders remain emphatic that their death toll is low. Lt. Col. Konstantin Kukharenko, a Russian military spokesman, claimed yesterday that 60 rebels had been killed in the last day compared with just one Russian.
Few independent observers believe Russian forces are not sustaining greater losses. An organization representing families of Russian soldiers fighting in Chechnya has accused the authorities of concealing the true numbers of casualties.
The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers says it estimates that 3,000 soldiers have been killed and 6,000 injured in the current campaign. Russian authorities put the death toll of 500.
"All this time there have never been comprehensible figures about losses," said Valentina Melnikova, head of the committee.
She said new information reaching her organization from regional committees suggests the death toll was increasing as Russian military commanders intensify their bid to subjugate Grozny.
With the 4-month-old military campaign bogging down badly the rebels in the last week have caught the Russians off guard by mounting hit-and-run counterattacks in at least three towns in southwest Chechnya Mr. Putin appeared to be preparing Russians for a prolonged struggle.
During an interview with state-run television Saturday night, he said time and patience would be required to win the war. As if to underscore his warning, more Russians troops were being prepared to reinforce the more than 100,000 soldiers already in Chechnya.
For Mr. Putin, there are considerable electoral risks in an extension of the war in Chechnya. His popularity is based on his handling of the war and serious setbacks could cost him support in presidential election scheduled for March 26.
In an alarming sign for the Kremlin, media support for the operation in Chechnya has shown signs of cracking in recent days.
While the most loyal pro-government media outlets are still putting a brave face on the stalled drive to conquer Grozny, other TV stations and publications are suggesting that Russian troops are struggling badly. Some are even starting to question the content of the official military briefings.
Russia's largest commercial television channel, NTV, has begun to focus on the reversals on the battlefield and is airing critical interviews with officers on the ground, who contradict the message coming from their commanders.
NTV's scathing coverage of the 1994-96 Chechen war was highly influential and did much to swing public opinion against the conflict. One piece of footage broadcast by NTV last week was reminiscent of that earlier coverage. It included grisly scenes of Russians and Chechens swapping their dead in Grozny.
Curiously, doubts about the current campaign are also being raised by media outlets owned by pro-Kremlin tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who was instrumental in the effort to persuade Boris Yeltsin to resign the presidency on New Year's Eve and make way for Mr. Putin to take control.
His newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, reported that for the first time the new war had begun to resemble the events of 1994-96, when Russia suffered a "crushing defeat." The paper scorned the authorities' upbeat claims to have driven rebels out of the occupied towns and into the mountains.

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