While Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, observed plaintively that the president was "upset" at the hostile reaction to his military crackdown in Chechnya, Mr Yeltsin himself was nowhere to be seen, wrapped in an invisibility that increasingly seems his preferred style of governance.
The latest confusion began on Wednesday evening when Nikolai Yegorov, the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for co- ordinating Chechen policy, predicted confidently that Grozny, Chechnya's capital, would fall without a fight to Russian troops by some time yesterday.
Other official information bulletins announced that a pro-Moscow Chechen administration would take over in Grozny, replacing the secessionist leadership of Dzhokhar Dudayev.
It was a different story early yesterday afternoon, when the joint defence ministry and interior ministry command in Chechnya issued a statement that described one of the most violent incidents of the 25-day-old war. It said Russian troops had killed almost 100 Chechen fighters as the Chechens made three attempts to break out of an encircled area near Grozny's railway station.
A later statement said interior ministry forces had used helicopter gunships against Chechen fighters, who retreated into remote areas outside the capital. Confirmation that clashes were continuing in the city was provided by independent witnesses.
No explanation was offered for the miserable inaccuracy of Mr Yegorov's prediction of a peaceful collapse of Chechen resistance. If he had intended to boost the spirits of the Russian public or merely to obscure the truth in a cloud of disinformation, t
h en he finished up by making Mr Yeltsin's handling of the conflict look even more discredited than before.
The liberal newspaper Izvestia, once pro-Yeltsin, compared the president's team to mediocre chess players. "In the Chechen crisis, the Russian authorities have shown their inability to see the immediate consequences even one or two moves ahead," it said
The most derisive image appeared in Komsomolskaya Pravda, which merged a picture of Mr Yeltsin toasting the nation on new year's eve with a photograph of dead Russian soldiers. "There is no power left, no truth and no president," read the front-page hea
Last Tuesday, Russia's Environment Minister, Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, revealed that the government, as opposed to the military and security services, had not played a part in the decision to attack Grozny. But even the political forces that support the intervention are arguing among themselves.
The disunity of the presidential camp was exposed in an interview with the Itar-Tass news agency given by Sergei Shakhrai, a senior Yeltsin aide who was recently assigned to run a special government information service on the Chechen crisis. Displaying not a sliver of loyalty to the armed forces whose cause he is supposed to be defending, Mr Shakhrai coolly remarked: "The failure of the military operation in Chechnya shows that Russia does not have an efficient army."
He then went on to outline his theory that the Chechen campaign had been torpedoed by disputes among the armed forces, the interior ministry and the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FKS), which inherited the former KGB's domestic affairs divisions.
Mr Shakhrai spoke of "rivalry among the power structures, with the defence ministry, for example, seeking to extract dividends from mistakes made by the FKS and the interior ministry".
However, the defence ministry itself is split. Boris Gromov, a Deputy Defence Minister who is highly critical of the decision to suppress Chechnya's rebellion by force, had more derisive words yesterday for his superior, Pavel Grachev.
Commenting on Mr Grachev's recent description of him as a peacemaker, an apparent reference to his role in withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan, Mr Gromov said: "The only thing that is causing alarm is an attempt to distort the very notion of a peacemaker. In the words of the defence minister, it sounded like a curse."
To some extent, the Chechen war has merely brought to the surface differences of political opinion and bureaucratic infighting of the kind that has been a hallmark of Mr Yeltsin's administration since the Soviet Union's demise in late 1991. The presidenthas often seemed to enjoy seeing his subordinates slug it out so that he can choose his policies at will while remaining unbeholden to any single faction.
His personal friendship with Mr Grachev is common knowledge, and has a political foundation in that the Defence Minister stood by him during the attempted coups in Moscow of August 1991 and October 1993. Less widely known is the fact that Mr Grachev is barely on speaking terms with Mr Yeltsin's own national security assistant, Yuri Baturin.
The disarray was summed up by the fates that befell the head and the deputy head of the Russian government press service this week. The head, Valentin Sergeyev, was taken to hospital with what was officially termed a heart problem, while the deputy head,Valery Grishin, suffered shell shock near Grozny and was evacuated to Moscow.Reuse content