Distraught mothers of Russian soldiers serving in Chechnya claim that accurate casualty figures are deliberately being withheld as the military strives to portray a reassuring image of the conflict.
With the military campaign entering its third stage, Russian body-bags are already coming back from the Caucasus republic, and casualty figures have started to leak out.
Up to 1,000 soldiers, mainly young conscripts, may already have been killed, according to the Committee Union of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia (UCSMR). And analysts say the worst is still to come.
"According to our calculations, since last August more than 900 soldiers have already been killed, and that was a week ago," said Valeria Pantyuchina, a spokeswoman for the Fund for Mothers' Rights, an association that gives assistance to parents whose children are killed while serving in the army.
"It is really difficult, if not impossible, to get official data. We asked that the government systematically register the losses and make them public. But they say it is confidential. The information we get is partial or outdated. Figures coming from different government agencies are contradictory or obviously underestimated."
Officially, losses are half as much as independent estimates and are rarely divulged. Summing up the operation's first two stages on Nov. 28, Gen. Manilov reported Defense Ministry casualties as 305 - including 127 killed on Chechen territory - and 853 wounded. There have been an additional 175 soldiers killed and 756 wounded among Interior Ministry troops, according to Deputy Minister Valery Fyodorov.
In an effort to keep an accurate count of casualties, the UCSMR is using its network of committees throughout Russia.
"We regularly poll our regional committees and, from the information they collect from below, we get a good idea of the general picture," Pantyuchina said.
"Last week, we totaled 80 dead for eight regions. And since we have 89 regions in Russia, we came up with 900 as an average. That's the way we make our statistics. It is not precise, but it is reliable."
Meanwhile, observers say the casualty figures could pose problems for the future of the campaign.
"It is appalling," said independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. "Even if we accept the official figures - 500 soldiers killed - it is already a lot. Imagine such losses in a Western country. That would be a public relations nightmare. The end of the war."
For Valentina Melnikova, the head of the Moscow Committee for Soldiers' Mothers, the tally is already too high. "Overall, what we can say for sure now is that losses are very high. A thousand killed since August, an average of 250 each month. If we compare that to the official data we have from the first [1994-96] Chechen war - officially 5,000 - suffering 1,000 [casualties] in four months is a lot."
This is the kind of comparison the military has been strenuously trying to avoid. Images of the first Chechen war, with its scores of novice, ill-trained soldiers thrown into battle and corpses of young conscripts abandoned in the streets of Grozny, remain in Russia's collective memory.
This time around, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged to make soldiers' lives a priority. And the tactics adopted by the federal force - air bombing and artillery shelling -have assured a successful progressive "liberation" of the northern half of Chechnya without massive Russian military casualties.
But, according to analysts, the new stage could prove more difficult and claim far more casualties.
Felgenhauer believes that the worst is yet to come. "That was the easy part. But you cannot avoid direct contact with the enemy forever. This war, like any war, will have to be won by the infantry. That has been the rule for millennia. No army has ever won a war with shelling and bombing alone. That was a piece of cake. The tough task is ahead, and casualties will increase in its wake with the beginning of infantry encounters."
According to Chechen sources, hundreds of Russians soldiers have been killed in recent counterattacks southwest of Grozny. The Russian military news agency AVN itself acknowledged Russian casualties have increased sharply in recent days.
Meanwhile, for the mothers waiting in line in the narrow corridor leading to the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers office in Moscow, things can't get any worse. For many, the war has raked up an issue that has been a hot military topic in Russia for several years. The women point out that in an army mostly made up of conscripts, losses mostly consist of young draftees. They fear their sons will have to pay for an uncertain victory with their lives.
Although reforming the army into a professional force has been on the political agenda since 1996, conscripts still form the backbone of Russia's Armed Forces. In war, the country has to rely on 18- to 27-year-old draftees to win its battles.
Many mothers claim their conscript sons are once again being sent to Chechnya as canon fodder, thrown into battle without sufficient preparation.
"Eighteen-year-old boys sent to hotspots after 12 months of service are ready neither practically nor psychologically," said Menilkova. "They are suddenly confronted with a tough experience, without real preparation. It is very difficult to adapt to. And too many of them have already died."
But Defense Ministry spokesman Gennady Shatalov dismissed the accusation. "Conscripts who go through our six-month training are very well-prepared. It is a very complete training course with a special formation for combat. Not only do they get technical skills, but also the psychological preparation needed. They learn how to use their guns and also get prepared mentally and morally."
According to the Defense Ministry, soldiers are in high spirits, a view backed up by TV broadcasts, where enthusiastic troops show off their determination to come to terms with bandits and terrorists.
But Ida Kuklina of the Committee of Mothers said the Defense Ministry picture is a "pure invention" designed to keep the population behind the war. "Our soldiers are in very bad and low spirits.
They face terrible conditions and there is no way they can be well," she said.
Kuklina said she was in the North Caucasus two weeks ago. She visited hospitals, talked to soldiers, to the sick and the wounded. She described corpses waiting for identification in the Rostov military morgue. She told of going to the Mozdok dispatch center with its relentless flurry of military planes loading and unloading dozens of the injured and dead every day.
"In Mozdok, they give first aid. Then those who need it are sent farther, to be treated in Rostov, Volgograd, Moscow or Yekaterinburg. That day, they sent about 150 of them. Some were ill, some were injured. Some really badly injured," she said.
"We talked to doctors who explained that, with winter coming and with deplorable hygiene, many fall ill. Already, cases of hepatitis and pneumonia have appeared. They have no drinking water and no place to wash. They are dirty, and cold, and infectious diseases develop rapidly."
Some Interior Ministry troops are in even worse condition, critics said. "In Toms, they were hungry, dirty and physically diminished. Their morale was very low. They appeared completely lost, let down, and without any idea of their fate. Very far from the enthusiasm we see on TV," said Kuklina.