The Chechen War, as the Russian leadership discovered in early March, is far from over. On the night of March 2, a convoy of nine trucks, carrying about 100 Internal Ministry special forces troops from Grozny to the strategically important crossroads village of Pervomayskava, was ambushed by an estimated 40 Chechen boyevikiy (“fighters” or “warriors”). The first and last trucks were taken out by rocket-propelled grenades; the Chechens then rained heavy machine-gun fire on the trucks trapped in between. Around 40 of the special forces troops were killed and around 20 wounded, according to Russian media reports. Meanwhile, other Chechen troops counterattacked near the mouth of the Argun gorge in southern Chechnya, briefly re-capturing several villages, then melting back into the snowy mountain passes.

The Russian military appeared confused, at first denying that a successful counterattack had taken place, then gradually revealing approximately what had happened. Vladimir Putin, appearing shaken and angry, told Russian television that the “incompetence” of certain unnamed MVD officers was at fault. The most embarrassing part of the entire episode was that the ambush had taken place in the “secure zone,” an area that the Russians had allegedly “mopped up” after entering Grozny.

Very few people asked the obvious question: Did the Russian military, flush with “victory” after taking Grozny, really believe that the war was over? Had they already forgotten the lessons of the last war? By the Kremlin’s own admission, between 2,000 and 5,000 boyevikiy remain at large. None of the first-rank Chechen warlords have been captured, and Chechnya’s borders—especially the one with Georgia, through which the Chechens are being re-supplied—remain porous.

The truth is that die Russians were in about the same position in 1995. Having taken Grozny, the Russian expeditionary force had supposedly trapped the rebels in the Argun Gorge. But the Chechens disappeared into the mountain passes and reappeared in the Russians’ rear, conducting ambushes and retaking, albeit briefly, towns and villages in a “secure zone” that included Grozny, which changed hands several times in the course of the 1995-96 war.

True, the Russians have shown signs of learning some of Hie lessons of the last war: Artillery and airpower have cleared the way for ground troops this time, and the Russians have seldom been foolish enough to send clumsy armored vehicles into the streets of Grozny, where the Chechens often successfully ambushed convoy’s during the first war. It is also true that the series of terrorist bombings last fall and Putin’s air of competence and firmness have so far kept the Russians (meaning the ethnically Russian; support is very thin among minorities, especially Muslims) firmly behind the war. But casualties are probably twice as high as the official figure of around 5,000 killed and wounded, and the unpopularity of the first war (a misnomer—the Russians and Chechens have been fighting each other for 200 years) was based not on warm and fuzzy feelings for the Chechens, whom the Russians frankly despise, but on the simple feeling among common people that they did not wish their sons to the in vain, victims of a corrupt and incompetent system that treated its people as an expendable commodity.