Boris Yeltsin's government was plunged into crisis yesterday after Chechen rebels spent a second day trying to grab back control of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in an effort to inflict maximum embarrassment on the Kremlin.
As his troops struggled to rebuff Chechen attacks across the city, Mr Yeltsin provided Russians with further reason to suspect that that he has no workable solution to the conflict - despite his promise to find one before the presidential election in three months' time.
The President, looking solemn, emerged from a meeting of his policy- making Security Council in Moscow with nothing more than a vague assurance that he was working on the framework of a blueprint for bringing "peace through stabilisation". He promised to unveil full details to the "entire world" by the month's end, a delay that seems certain to disappoint many Russians who have long been embittered by the loss of life in the 15-month war, and angered by the failure of the Kremlin's hawks to fulfil an earlier boast that they could bring it to a quick end. His indecisiveness and apparent helplessness at the hands of what most regard as lawless terrorists will only do more damage to Mr Yeltsin's chances of returning to office.
The President's strongest political rival, the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who is well ahead in the polls, was quick to rub salt into the wound, warning that the war could become a "second Afghanistan" and pouring scorn on Mr Yeltsin for being unable to settle the conflict by peaceful means, always relying on force.
To widespread amazement, the President seemed out of touch with the unfolding dramas in Chechnya yesterday, prompting suspicions that his inner circle is withholding information from him - an allegation that also arose last month during Russia's disastrous bombardment of Pervomayskoye. Mr Yeltsin told reporters outside his Security Council meeting that the rebels had been driven out of Grozny when this was in fact far from the case.
Eyewitnesses said that the Chechen forces had penetrated deep into the already wrecked city, seizing control of a police station and a hospital and taking prisoner 84 Russian construction workers. By yesterday evening, the rebels controlled a third of the city.
The Russian forces appear to have been caught out by the offensive which began at dawn on Wednesday after some 300 rebels rolled in on a suburban train which they had commandeered. Yesterday Russian Interior Ministry police (Omon) were reportedly driven back into their hide-outs because they began to run out of ammunitionat around 11am. An official from the Moscow-backed Chechen government told the Interfax news agency that at 2pm - three hours after the fighting began - the Russian army was still not in action.
The Chechens - between 500 and 1,000, according to Russian estimates - are rumoured to be led by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander who led last year's mass hostage-taking in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk, an episode that was widely seen as a humiliation for Mr Yeltsin.
Last night there were reports that the Chechens had successfully sabotaged the city's heating plant, three water pumping stations, and an oil pipeline, and had installed snipers only 100 yards from the headquarters of the Moscow- installed Chechen government.
Water supplies were cut, and intense fighting was said to have begun around Grozny's television station. Figures for the number of dead are usually unreliable, but the Russians admitted that some 70 of their forces had been killed, and claimed that 130 rebels died.
For Mr Yeltsin yesterday's events are a realisation of a nightmare, as they undermine his efforts to convince a sceptical electorate that he can fix the Chechen crisis. They also suggest that the rebels - whom he has vowed to kill - are able to sabotage his political fortunes at will. Although they seem unlikely to win Grozny - Russian reinforcements were streaming in yesterday as virtually every Russian position was under fire - the Chechens are equally unlikely to cease to be a thorn in the Kremlin's side as the election approaches.