Far more is asserted about Russia’s acting president, Mr. Vladimir Putin, than is known. He rose through the state security apparatus, where his steely eye and no-nonsense demeanor impressed President Boris Yeltsin, who named him acting prime minister in August last year. Upon Mr. Yeltsin’s surprise resignation on New Year’s Eve, Mr. Putin assumed that post, and he is expected to win it outright in the election scheduled for March 26, if the war in Chechnya goes well for Russia. That is a big if, however, and only one of the many unknowns that swirl around Mr. Putin.

Officially, Russia is winning the war against the Islamic forces in Chechnya. Last week, the government declared that it had finally penetrated the center of Grozny and started a final assault to take control of the capital of the rebel province. That news was tempered by reports, since confirmed, that the deputy commander of the Russian Army leading the offensive was killed by sniper fire during the attack.

The building-to-building fighting for the city center will be the most dangerous part of the war. In the 1994-96 Chechen war, the rebels lured Russian troops into the capital and then decimated them in savage fighting. Until this last drive, the Russian Army had kept its distance, pounding the city with artillery and from the air to reduce it to rubble and deprive the Muslim fighters of cover. Now the idea is to launch one last surge, capture Grozny, declare victory and go home, whereupon Mr. Putin will campaign as the savior of Russia and win resoundingly.

That is the plan. Only last week, however, there were reports that Russian casualties have been dramatically understated. While the government claims that only 500 soldiers have been killed in the fighting, a serviceman’s support group says the real number could be as many as 3,000, the number of those killed in the previous war. While the Russian people are behind the war effort, that support will evaporate if rebels retake the offensive and inflict heavy losses. If history repeats itself — and there is more than enough time before the election for the tide to turn — Mr. Putin will join the list of casualties.

While Mr. Putin’s campaign strategy and tactics are clear, his future policies are not. Some analysts hoped that he would prove to be a closet reformer. Once he was elected, the argument went, he would embrace reform and clean up the corruption that had become endemic during Mr. Yeltsin’s reign. That assessment gained credibility when Mr. Putin cleaned house after taking office, dismissing Mr. Yeltsin’s daughter and several of her cronies from their executive positions.

In the 1980s, former Soviet KGB leader Yuri Andropov was thought to be a closet liberal, fond of jazz and ready to banish the corruption that had spread throughout the Soviet Union. He died early, but by every indication the analysts were wrong: Andropov was just another product of the system. History looks likely to repeat itself.

Last week, Mr. Putin stunned liberal and moderate politicians by concluding a pact with the Communists in the Duma, Russia’s Lower House of Parliament. The deal will help the government pass legislation, since the Communists are the largest single party in the Duma. But elections last month had given moderates, including Mr. Putin’s Unity Party, the largest number of seats. When the acting president made his deal with the left, seemingly turning his back on the election results, those politicians walked out of the building. Even if the move is purely tactical and does not reflect deep-seated affinities between Mr. Putin and the left, it bodes ill for progressive legislation.

A similarly disturbing shift was evident in Russia’s new security strategy. In it, Moscow lowers the threshold for use of its nuclear weapons and downplays the role of partnership with the West. On the one hand, the document was much more aggressive and confrontational than its predecessor; on the other, its stress on nuclear weapons actually mimics NATO’s own strategy.

In a speech last week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott warned that the Chechen conflict was bringing out the worst aspects of Russian nationalism and chauvinism and even threatened to return Russian to Soviet-era totalitarianism. He is right. But there is also the risk that assuming that future will guarantee it. The world must be ready for the worst in Russia — and after the events of the last few years, we should be used to that — while doing everything possible to assuage Russian fears and insecurities. Mr. Putin, or his successor, must be convinced that cooperation, not confrontation, is Russia’s best option.

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