The nation's most wanted fugitive moves by night from one mountain hide-out to another. The exploits of his guerrilla band top the evening news. If federal agents don't kill him first, he might kill the president's hopes for reelection.
The script sounds right for a tiny republic in Central Africa or Central America. But this is Russia, and the stakes are nothing less than President Boris N. Yeltsin's survival against a Communist challenge in voting 13 weeks away.
Gen. Dzhokar M. Dudayev, Yeltsin's nemesis-in-hiding, sat calmly in a safe house less than a mile from a Russian checkpoint over the weekend and made it clear that the election season will bring intensified attacks in Chechnya's separatist war with Moscow. He said he has nothing to lose.
"It would be better to have the Communists in power," the Soviet air force veteran said during a four-hour conversation that ended early Sunday. "The Communists would be a gift from heaven compared to the criminal regime that is now destroying our people."
It has been 15 months since Yeltsin's troops invaded Chechnya and drove Dudayev from Grozny, the capital of the breakaway Russian republic. Last month, Yeltsin conceded that he could not be reelected without ending the unpopular conflict, which has killed more than 20,000 people but failed to wipe out the separatist rebels.
From his hide-out, Dudayev said he pities Yeltsin as "a victim of Russian-itis." He described his guerrillas' latest strike, a three-day occupation of Grozny earlier this month, as a training exercise for "a new dimension of war" that will include bolder attacks inside Russia proper.
And he rejected even the most dovish proposals circulating in the Kremlin that call for reviving peace negotiations that collapsed last fall. He said he would welcome such talks with a Communist regime in Moscow but has lost all trust in Yeltsin's administration.
"What they have offered us is to sit in a cage with a hungry bear, shake his paw and ask for reconciliation," declared Dudayev, who wants Chechnya's sovereignty recognized.
On Friday, Yeltsin's Security Council adopted a plan for Chechnya that includes a military offensive to drive separatist fighters out of populated areas and high into the Caucasus Mountains by March 28. Fighting was reported Sunday in the towns of Samashki and Bamut.
Dudayev said he has intelligence that the Security Council also issued an order to assassinate him. The claim is plausible; after Yeltsin's anti-Chechen outburst in January that "mad dogs must be shot," an unknown gunman put a bullet in rebel field commander Salman Raduyev's head. Russian news agencies have reported that Raduyev died in the attack, but Dudayev said he survived, losing an eye.
The dapper 52-year-old Chechen leader looked stern but confident throughout the evening interview with reporters from five Western news organizations in a foothill town not far from here. His security was light; two bodyguards were visible.
But the meeting was arranged with elaborate precaution. Reporters were driven in cars from a safe house in one town to a guerrilla command post in another, then loaded into a covered military truck that had been seized from the Russians. After a 2 1/2-hour ride up steep, muddy slopes to elude Russian checkpoints, the reporters were ushered into the living room of a comfortable brick home in a third town, whose name they agreed not to disclose.
Dudayev has held several clandestine news conferences during the war, and his survival is one of its mysteries.
Wanted by Moscow for treason and terrorism, the general said he has "lost count" of the times Russian agents have shot at him. Rockets and grenades have crashed through his windows, he said, and bombs have exploded near his car. The handle of a knife given as a gift turned out to emit radio signals that revealed his whereabouts, he said.
"Thousands of people are earning their bread trying to kill me," he said, and "probably they missed the target on purpose," to keep getting paid to try again. Offering another possible explanation, he said: "We have made preparations so that in case of my death, [the Russians'] ordeal would increase tenfold.
"I live this nomadic life not because I am afraid but because I am needed here and there," he said at another point. "I must serve my people."
Dudayev said he was in Grozny during the guerrillas' occupation earlier this month--a claim that is hard to verify. He said the raid was ordered hours after Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, Yeltsin's defense minister, went to the capital and announced he was ready for peace talks. "I wanted to save him the trouble of finding me," Dudayev quipped.
Officials in Russian-controlled Grozny admit they were stunned by the raid, which revealed the rebels' resilience and the Russians' weak defenses. Dudayev said it took his men less than an hour and a half to seize three districts of the city. The government said it lost 91 soldiers; Dudayev's fighters said they lost just eight.
Dudayev said the raid showed that "it is no big problem for us to capture any city." His fighters are now poised, he said, to seize "military-industrial and political-administrative centers" in Russia and other former Soviet republics tied to Russia's defense industry.
As on previous occasions, Dudayev issued vague threats to strike at Western nations for their failure to denounce what he called Russia's "state terrorism."
Dudayev admitted for the first time that in 1994 he dispatched fighters to Afghanistan for guerrilla training at an Islamic fundamentalist camp for moujahedeen. He said that "the force of Islam" in mostly Muslim Chechnya is gaining strength.
"The creator has given us a weapon that can . . . make any continent bend to its knees," he warned. "If you [in the West] don't want war coming to your countries, you had better rectify your attitude toward Russia."
There is speculation that Dudayev has lost power to younger, more militant field commanders who twice in the past year have led bloody hostage-taking raids on hospitals in the region. He said during the evening interview that he is sometimes unable to restrain such attacks on civilians.
"We are much more interested in continuing the war than Russia is," Dudayev said before dismissing his visitors into a midnight fog. "What is left for us? Our economy has been destroyed. Our people have no homes, no bread, no jobs, nothing. We have 500,000 men aged 15 to 50 who know only one thing: how to fight."