Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya yesterday played a dangerous game of dare, which appeared to take the two sides to the brink of war once more. The prospect of a renewed flare-up in the fighting now seems more real than it has been for months.
President Boris Yeltsin threatened force against the Chechens if they did not fully disarm. Failure to meet the Russians' terms could bring "special, emergency energetic measures - including military". The Chechen leadership seems disinclined to do the Russians' bidding, however: a Monday deadline has been ignored.
Some observers believed that the Russians had gained victory, following their destruction of the Chechen capital, Grozny, at the beginning of this year. A partial peace deal was agreed last month. But the forcible occupation of Chechnya, and the increased bitterness among the Chechen population, may merely have delayed further explosions. Chechnya's "peace" is in any case unstable, with several people being killed almost every day.
The Kremlin appears convinced that the Chechen population will eventually buckle under if enough force is used. The Russian leadership has put concerted public pressure on the Chechens' separatist leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, in recent days, with the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the presidential spokesman, Sergei Medvedev, adding their voices to that of Mr Yeltsin. Mr Medvedev insisted there was no ultimatum, but noted that Russia "has taken rather a tough stance, believing the disarmament of Dudayev's formations is of prime importance". Mr Medvedev warned: "If Dudayev's supporters are not ready to indicate illegal armed formations and their location, the Russians might do it themselves."
Further bullish noises came from the chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, Viktor Ilyukhin, who called for a state of emergency in Chechnya. Otherwise it would be "impossible to disentangle the Chechen knot. It is not ruled out that Dudayev's formations will again have to be disarmed by force".
Whether these threats are part of a warm-up for a renewal of the war, or whether the Russians are merely sabre- rattling, is difficult to tell. Pravda yesterday described the situation as "neither peace nor war", and worried that Russia may, in effect, have capitulated to "a gang of Dudayev's cut-throats".
The liberal Sevodnya argued: "The President and government are not joking. Everybody remembers the 48-hour ultimatum that ended with the troops going into Chechnya. Despite the fact that more than six months have gone by, the condition of the ultimatum - the disarming of illegal formations - is the same as it was then."
Despite tough Russian talk and Chechen defiance, neither side would stand to gain from a renewal of the war. Anatoly Romanov, the Russian military commander in Chechnya, complained yesterday that neither he nor his Chechen opposite number, Aslan Maskhedov, wanted to go "into a labyrinth of negotiations". They were only forced to do so, he said, because political negotiators had failed to clear up ambiguities.
Khozh-Akhmed Yarikhanov, the Chechens' senior negotiator, told Tass news agency that it was impossible for the Chechen side to give a clear response to the Moscow ultimatum, because "we know about the ultimatum only from the media".