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Moscow Promotes Its Wishful Thinking As Chechens Fight On

SIX weeks after Russian troops rolled into the rebel republic of Chechnya with the boast that it would take only a few hours to capture the capital Grozny, the gulf between events on the ground and official statements is as wide as ever.

In some cases it seems wider: Oleg Lobov, secretary of the Security Council and among President Boris Yeltsin's closest confidants, said Wednesday - despite thousands of deaths - ``I would not call this a war.''

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Rather, Russian officials maintain the operation is a police action to disarm ``illegal bandit groups,'' as supporters of the self-declared Chechen president, Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, are known in the Kremlin.

The Russian government tried to bolster that impression Wednesday, when the Security Council decided to transfer control of forces in Chechnya from Defense Minister Pavel Grachev to Interior Minister Viktor Yerin. ``We are switching to a new stage in settling the Chechen issue,'' Mr. Yeltsin told the Council, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.

But this was not the first time that the president has prematurely announced that the Army's job in Chechnya as done.

On the ground, Russian artillery was reported to be pounding southern Grozny and outlying villages, where General Dudayev's fighters are still in control, although they are being pushed back by the barrage.

But even as the shells landed, the Security Council said the war was practically over. Mr. Lobov told reporters the Council - top officials from the Cabinet, the presidential staff, and parliament - was hearing how factories were starting up again and discussing prospects for elections in Chechnya.

Even critics of the military operation, such as Gen. Eduard Vorobyov, who was sacked as deputy commander of Russian ground forces when he refused to take command of the troops in Chechnya, are optimistic about the future.

``The most important thing is that ... the Chechen and Russian peoples did not become enemies,'' he said yesterday. ``If hostilities stop immediately and we start to rebuild what was destroyed in the war, the situation can be quickly mended.''

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Such a prognosis sits ill with all the reports from Chechnya of the fighters' determination to resist the Russians to the death. It also runs counter to expert opinion.

``It is very hard to see how relations [between Russia and Chechnya] can be mended now,'' says Emil Pain, Yeltsin's adviser on ethnic affairs, who has fallen out of favor since the war began.

Although the Kremlin insists that the ``nonwar'' is almost over, officials acknowledge that Russian soldiers will have to be stationed in Chechnya for years to come.

``There should be a minimum required number of troops needed to ensure national security,'' Lobov says. ``Such a minimum should be determined for a two, three, or five year period, with a strategy for the future.''

What impact such a protracted conflict would have on Yeltsin's standing in the West is unclear. So far, beyond their protestations over indiscriminate Russian bombing, Western governments have done nothing that might endanger Yeltsin's stability.

Still seen in Western capitals as Russia's best bet for reform, Yeltsin has been able to play on foreign fears of Russia's collapse should Chechnya secedes from the federation.

``An overwhelming majority [of foreign countries] oppose Russia's disintegration,'' Lobov says.

``That would be a blow not only to Europe'' but to the United States as well, he warns.

Some liberals too are anxious that the West should not take dramatic action over Chechnya, saying only Western ``engagement'' can ensure democratic reform.

``If the West turns its back on Russia now,'' when hard-liners are in the ascendant, warns Mr. Pain, ``this country will go back to being the way it was before perestroika.''

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