"Get out! Get out! They are shooting at us!" shouted the flustered-looking colonel, his voice loud enough to be heard above the roar of Russian howitzers and the rattle of machine-gun fire. I asked if we were being targeted by mortars or snipers. "I don't know," he roared back testily as he lumbered towards a vehicle. "Ask the Chechens."
The Chechen fighters in Grozny, small in number and squeezed by Russian probing attacks, are still capable of showing their teeth. Russian commanders deny that the Chechens wiped out a detachment of tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) which blundered into the heart of the city in the middle of the week. Reports from the scene, however, leave little doubt that the Russian army suffered one of its few setbacks in the war.
Driving up to the front line over the low hills north of Grozny, it is easy to see why the Russians are so confident. The long snouts of Russian howitzers point towards the Chechen capital from every hilltop. The last time I was here was two months ago, when Chechen fighters were dug into a low escarpment just south of the Terek river, facing Russian tanks to the north.
Their defence did not last long. Backed by massive artillery fire, Russian armour soon overran their narrow zigzag trenches, often only 18in across. The positions right up to the eastern approaches to Grozny are now held by the 20th Division of the Russian Army, based in Volgograd, whose commanders have no doubt about their ability to fight their way into the city.
For the moment, the 20th, a mechanised infantry unit, is led by Colonel Viktor Pavlov, a confident, forthright officer, normally its deputy commander but now in charge amid rumours that his senior officer was wounded.
At his headquarters encampment, looking more like something out of the First World War, with soldiers walking on wooden duckboards to avoid the deep mud, he assured us that the situation around Grozny was very much under control: "The city is surrounded. Everything is being done to allow the civilians to leave. The psychology of our soldiers is the psychology of victors. They have no doubt they will win." If he could not promise that the Russian flag would fly over Grozny by the New Year, it was only because the final decision was political, not military.
Officers like Col Pavlov probably do think that "everything is being done" to get civilians out of Grozny - Russian officers have a schizophrenic attitude to Chechens. At an old airport defended by dug-in self-propelled artillery, Major Vladimir Nikolaev, with 23 years in the Soviet and then Russian Army, explained that Russia was in Chechnya not to fight ordinary Chechens but "gangsters". It is true that if you talk to local people here, they are sick and tired of the Wahhabis (Islamic extremists). The problem, as almost every refugee explains, is that for the Russians any Chechen who opposes them is a Wahhabi. Nor does the relentless Russian bombardment make any distinction between fighters and Chechen civilians.
Evidence of mass destruction is everywhere in the plains and hills east of Grozny. An old factory, wrecked in the last war, had been pounded once again by artillery. Even rusty old containers, used by street traders as improvised shops, had been blasted into twisted, charred metal by Russian shells. There are also signs of more recent and sinister destruction. As we approached the village of Tolstoy-Yurt, we saw a column of grey smoke rising thousands of feet into the air. It turned out to come from a small oil refinery which was ablaze. The fire was so intense it could only have been started in the last few days."Maybe it is a grass fire," said a Russian official defensively. The more likely explanation is that Russia is destroying the Chechen oil business, usually illegal, but one of the few industries still operating.
Many Chechens are still hopeful that the Russians will not stay long. They argue that the motive for launching the invasion in September was to enable Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, to become President in succession to Boris Yeltsin next year. This was probably true at the beginning, but the war has taken on new dimensions. For many Russians it is a test case of the government's ability to restore order. The Chechens are a uniquely suitable target because Russians, by and large, detest them as violent mafiosi, and see Chechnya as the Sicily of the Russian Federation.
So far, the war has gone Russia's way. Its military campaign has been brutal but effective. On our way back from the front, our little convoy made frequent stops, which did not seem a good idea. It was night time and thick freezing mist had closed in, allowing any guerrilla to fire his machine gun or rocket-propelled grenade from point-blank range without our three APCs being able to do much about it. The stops had a simple explanation. We were going to have a party.
We were waiting for soldiers in another APC to return with vodka and tinned meat and fish (no Russian drinks without eating). When they finally emerged from the mist clutching a plastic bag filled with bottles, the party began, illuminated by the lights of the armoured vehicles.
The Russian army is traditionally hospitable, but this roadside celebration also showed the soldiers' confidence that we were under no danger of attack. This sense of security may pass. But for the moment, in the territory taken in the last three months, Russia is very much in control.