SOUTHWEST CHECHNYA, RUSSIA
Beneath the lush, spring-green forests and rich farming fields of Chechnya, Aslanbek's rebel uniform, assault rifle, and field radio lie buried and waiting.
A "reservist" fighter, he helped defeat Russian troops in Chechnya's first war in the mid-1990s. Tired of this second conflict, though, he has kept his powder dry - until now.
But as Russian forces, frustrated by rebel hit-and-run tactics, focus their unwanted attention on civilians, once-cautious young fighters like Aslanbek are turning into martyrs-in-waiting.
"I could have gone to Europe to live," says Aslanbek, who insisted on a pseudonym. "But I didn't, because I want revenge. My hatred just grows every hour and every day against the Russian people, because they have destroyed my country."
Officially, this war is over. Russia routinely announces victory over the separatist rebels. Last week, defense and intelligence chiefs - while admitting that they had yet to "neutralize" rebel leaders as ordered by President Vladimir Putin - confidently ruled out any future "serious resistance." Guerrilla units are on the run, they said, and can only attack in groups of three or four.
But Russia's latest moves in Chechnya belie such public utterances, and underscore a growing recognition of what might be called the "Aslanbek factor" - the point at which deepening hatred has made a new escalation of fighting all but inevitable.
The Forum on Early Warning and Early Response, a collection of Western and Russian conflict-prevention groups, predicts an escalation in the next three months, beyond the usual spring surge.
A possible major offensive
In a report last week, it noted that rebels have been regrouping around the Chechen capital, Grozny, and that a recent morale-boosting visit by Mr. Putin to troops in Chechnya may signal Russian preparations for a "fresh crackdown."
Both sides are moving hostages and prisoners-of-war to secure areas, the group reported.
A flare-up in fighting earlier this month in the eastern town of Argun was the heaviest in a year. And rumors are rife that the rebels will move any day to try to recapture Grozny; rebel supporters here describe a seven-part plan to do so. If it succeeds, such a bold stroke could force Russia to the peace table.
In Chechnya's last war, the city's fall marked the beginning of the end for Russian troops. But rebel boasts aside, it is by no means clear whether they are capable of a repeat success.
Contact with Chechen guerrillas is rare but not impossible, as Russia presses its second military campaign against what it calls Islam-inspired "terrorists." To prevent outside support - in the form of weapons, cash, and fresh fighters - Moscow has sealed off the breakaway Caucasus republic. The result is that virtually all Western observers have been shut out, too, making it extremely difficult to verify the state of the conflict, or confirm frequent allegations of severe human rights abuses. Senior officials say that only large amounts of reconstruction aid - little of which has found its way to Chechnya - will convince Chechens that Moscow is serious about bringing peace.
Although Putin has praised his soldiers for what he calls an "antiterrorist operation" in Chechnya, Europe and the United States have voiced strong criticism.
Russian military prosecutors have opened 70 cases against federal troops in Chechnya - including 22 that involved civilian deaths. But after making that announcement earlier this month, Russia's human rights envoy, Vladimir Kalamanov, said that "little improvement in the human rights situation in Chechnya is likely in the near future."
Such abuses are what drive Aslanbek to prepare to dig up his gun, a sign of a wider discontent with violent potential, that has registered in the Kremlin.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov two weeks ago cancelled a plan to cut the number of Russian ground troops from 80,000 to 20,000. In the end, just 5,000 soldiers went home. And a much-vaunted plan to move the offices of the Moscow-installed Chechen administration from the eastern town of Gudermes to Grozny has been deemed too dangerous and put on hold.
On Wednesday, the first official casualty figures released in months put Russian troop deaths at 3,069, with 9,187 wounded. Rights groups and some soldiers say the true figure is far higher; the Noviye Izvestia newspaper in Moscow estimated at least Russian 4,500 dead.
"There is no doubt that we are going to win this war," says a Chechen guerrilla commander in southern Chechnya, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Tough talk is the stock-in-trade of rebel groups worldwide, as are overestimates of popular support. But while many Chechen civilians say they at first welcomed the return of Russian troops in October 1999 - if only to deal with the brutal lawlessness and kidnapping that marred Chechnya's brief self-rule - Russian misbehavior ever since has boosted rebel support.
"Every Chechen is a soldier. We have exactly as many fighters as we need for a guerrilla war. If it is known that we need 500 fighters - or 10,000 - we shall have them," claims the guerrilla commander.
Ready for a suicide mission
It is the Kremlin's aim of restoring order with a heavy hand, Chechens say, that has radicalized attitudes here.
The murder rate is increasing among Chechens and ethnic Russians alike, human rights workers say. So are disappearances, and the discovery of mass graves often linked to Russian forces.
With a shiny gray tassel on his Islamic skullcap, Aslanbek speaks darkly of his readiness to carry out a suicide bombing - if he were sure he could kill 100 Russians. After five similar attacks killed some 50 Russian soldiers last July, rebel chiefs boasted that they had 500 more suicide bombers in reserve.
"There was a time when the words 'victory' and 'defeat' meant something to me," Aslanbek says. "But now we accept that whatever will be, will be."
The rebels are ratcheting up their declared war on the Moscow-installed Chechen administration, as well. One high-ranking official was killed in an explosion April 15; Grozny's deputy prosecutor was shot dead at a coffee shop just days before.
In a video address released in March, Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya's legally elected president turned rebel leader, called on all Chechens to fight the occupation. "Why do the Russians hate us?" he asked. "They have enough weapons to destroy the whole earth. But even so, they can't handle the Chechens."
It's a view that resoonates with supporters. "[Russians] have no future here. They didn't come to build schools, institutes, and factories," says a Chechen civilian who helps with the war effort. "They want to destroy Chechnya so that there is no future for the Chechen people, either.
The rebel commander, for his part, says that Russian propaganda has blown Chechen religiosity out of proportion. "It would be a mistake to divide religion from nationalism. Islam is present in all our activities," he says. But he attributes any hardline surge to unforgiving Russian tactics - noting that Russian leaders made a similar mistake once before.
"In Afghanistan, people lived in peace until the Soviets invaded [in December 1979] and destroyed that country," the commander says. "That led to hatred of everything Russian, to religious extremism, and to the Taliban."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor