The remarks, made before a meeting of his hawkish Security Council, stirred hope among critics of an end to indiscriminate bombing but left unanswered how the Kremlin proposes to impose rulers when President Dzhokhar Dudayev is still in command and showsno sign of rescinding a three-year-old independence declaration.
Mr Yeltsin's plan seems an unworkable attempt to satisfy hardliners demanding Mr Dudayev be replaced, while allaying alarm over civilian casualties and a fear, shared by senior military commanders, of a bloody quagmire similar to the Soviet Union's Afghanistan campaign.
The extent of turmoil in Russia's reluctant and rebellious military was underlined yesterday with Inter-fax news agency reports that the posts of three deputy defence ministers were being abolished. President Yeltsin had drafted a decree, the agency said, relieving generals Boris Gromov, Georgy Kondratiev and Valery Mironov. General Gromov, who commanded the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, launched an angry attack on Kremlin policy in Chechnya, where Russian troops are engaged in their biggest offensive Afghanistan.
In a speech to Afghan veterans, he compared President Yeltsin's decision to send troops into Chechnya with Leonid Brezhnev's Afghan debacle, which started because Soviet leaders had "placed political ambitions on the same level as the lives of people. Weare seeing something similar going on in Russia now. No one is drawing the right conclusions from the experience we had 15 years ago," he said.
Mr Yeltsin's public comments to the Security Council only compound the sense of a policy - and possibly an entire country - adrift.
"The first stage is coming to an end," Mr Yeltsin said in the presence of journalists. "We are going to look at when we can `wind up' the participation of the military and go on to the second stage - forming administrative organs in the Chechen republic." He suggested troops might pull back from the outskirts of Grozny but not from Chechnya entirely. The Itar-Tass news agency reported last night that Mr Yeltsin would set up a temporary human rights monitoring commission to resume talks. A "Gove rnment of National Rebirth" for the breakaway region in the north Caucasus will be headed by Salambek Khadzhiyev, 53, petroleum engineer and, briefly in 1991, Soviet Minister of Chemical and Oil-Processing Industries, it reported.
A huge and perilous gulf remains, however, between the appointment of a new Chechen regime by officials in Moscow and any realistic hope of it being able to rule with more than token authority inside Chechnya.
Russian troops have yet to conquer Grozny and it is unclear whether, after three days of fighting, they have even secured the far more modest target of Argun, a settlement controlling the city's eastern approach.
"The main thing I do not understand," said General Gromov, "is for what reason our young people have to die." Such comments sharpen a long- running campaign within the military hierarchy to remove the deeply compromised Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, also an Afghan veteran.
Sergei Yushenkov, the parliamentary defence committee chairman, linked yesterday's reported Defence Ministry shake-up, part of which was announced last week but subsequently denied, to the "shameful action in Chechnya". But Mr Yushenkov also interpreted the president's comments to the Security Council as meaning "no more bombs will fall on civilians in Grozny".
Mr Yeltsin, who has spent much of the Chechen conflict recuperating from what is officially said to have been a minor nose operation, is due to make a national television address tonight, the first time he will have spoken to his electors since he ordered three columns of armour into Chechnya on 11 December.
While much of the military seems to have little stomach for a venture that has only revealed incompetence, sapped morale and provoked mutiny in at least one column, a deputy prime minister, Nikolai Yegorov, yesterday demanded a rapid storming of the bomb-ravaged Chechen capital. "The operation ...should be completed shortly," Itar-Tass quoted him as saying, "otherwise the political situation and ethnic relations within Russia will be aggravated."
Ranged against such demands are many of Mr Yeltsin's former allies. But the President seems mostly unmoved by pleas for an end to what the Kremlin-appointed human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, has called the "crazy massacre" of civilians. Mr Yeltsin said he appreciated the concern of Mr Kovalyov, a former dissident who has been in Grozny throughout, but added: "Human rights are not only about weeping over how hard life is, but are ... about how to create conditions that people can live normally."
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