MOSCOW -- Tens of thousands of refugees clogged the road from Chechnya to the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia yesterday, as Russian warplanes continued their strikes against Chechen industrial and military targets.
Moscow's strategy in its budding war with Chechnya was starting to become clear -- mass troops at the border, bomb from the air and wait for the "bandits" to give up. The Russians say they are only attacking legitimate targets, such as oil refineries, communications facilities and weapons depots.
The Chechen government says 300 civilians, mostly women and children, have been killed in the raids. Up to 100,000 Chechens have fled for their lives.
The government of Ingushetia, part of the Russian Federation, appealed yesterday to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for assistance, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. Vice Premier Zakre Sultygov said Ingushetia could not provide shelter, food and clothing for so many refugees.
Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has ordered border guards to seal off Chechnya to prevent separatist guerrillas from getting out. If the order is carried out, thousands of refugees would be forced back into the breakaway republic, victims of a war in which the Russians talk about going after bandit formations but increasingly seem to have all of Chechnya in their sights.
In Moscow, the government is considering whether to cut off electricity to Chechnya, and decided yesterday to suspend pension payments to elderly people there who are technically still Russian citizens.
Over the weekend, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Moscow would not rule out a ground invasion, but Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, in an interview published yesterday in the newspaper Vremya, said Russia had no intention of sending in troops as long as warplanes are able to reach their targets.
Putin said Moscow had learned its lessons from the disastrous Chechen war of 1994-1996, which cost about 80,000 lives.
"The difference is that this time we will not thoughtlessly send our boys to absorb hostile fire," he said. "Either, as in the past, we rush into the attack with screams of 'Communists, forward!' heedless of our losses, or we patiently, methodically destroy them from the air, without any hurry."
Putin said "special troops" will be used to "clean up territories," lending credence to speculation that Russian government forces intend at some point to invade Chechnya but seize only the northern portion of the republic, perhaps setting up a border along the Terek River.
Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center said Moscow might then install a rival Chechen government in the northern territory. The Caucasus Mountains rear up south of the Terek River, and Malashenko and other analysts believe the Russian forces will not try to penetrate them because Chechen resistance would be too stiff.
To this point, Putin's handling of the Chechen crisis has been a political success. In mid-August, Yeltsin gave him two weeks to deal with the Islamic rebels who had seized villages in neighboring Dagestan. Since then, apartment houses have been blown up in fatal bomb attacks in Moscow and elsewhere, the fighting against the guerrillas has moved to Chechnya and escalated into a small war, and Putin's popularity has climbed steadily.
Opinion polls show that Russians blame the Chechens. Putin talks tough, and people like that.
Putin said Friday that Russian forces would pursue Chechen rebels and rub them out, and if they found them in the toilet, they would rub them out there. The words he used for killing people, and for toilet, are prison slang, coarse but printable in Russian, without direct equivalents in English.
The prime minister's gangster talk went over well, though he said yesterday that he regretted his coarse language.
"That is the only language possible with bandits and terrorists," said Nabi Ziyadullaev, vice president of the Reforma Foundation, a Moscow think tank. "That kind of language is very much needed when a leader appeals to the Russian people."
Few could say they were shocked, because one of the peculiarities of post-Soviet Russia is that most politicians enjoy using gangster slang, heedless of the image that might project.
But what's happening in Chechnya is not gang warfare but the real thing. Chechen television has shown an apartment house that was bombed, with bodies strewn about.
No one can tell what will become of the thousands of refugees. The Russian strategy of patient aerial bombardment seems to presume a defensive reaction by the Chechen fighters, who have a penchant for daring raids and unexpected strikes that could throw Russia off balance.
The Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, has been at pains to keep the rebel fighters at arm's length, saying they have nothing to do with his government. He has been urgently seeking a meeting with Yeltsin to try to find a way to stave off a war that holds terrible dangers for both sides. But the Kremlin doesn't seem to share his urgency.
Putin said Yeltsin would meet with Maskhadov -- but not now, and not until the Russian president deems it "necessary and advantageous."