THE NORD-OST THEATER HOSTAGE CRISIS AND CHECHNYA: THE SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS – FROM COMPLEX TO SIMPLE

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“The memory of the dead ought to unite us,” said President Putin in his address on Saturday, October 26, after the storming of the Dubrovka theater. But in fact it is precisely the memory of the 118 dead (pray God that figure climbs no higher) which is not permitting us to feel entirely glad about the end of the multi-hour nightmare that began on October 23 during the second act of the Nord-Ost musical. Neither does it permit us to rejoice over the sudden skill of the special services who managed to prevent the terrorists from using their two hundred kilograms of explosives to bury everyone in the theater under its ruins.

In line with old Russian tradition, the cost of the victory is always the most painful question. No cost was spared in this case either.

True enough, most of the “authorities” and ordinary citizens whose comments have appeared in the media consider that the government did what was necessary – and inevitable. The Vremya Novostei newspaper says: “In terms of common human values, the events on Melnikova Street ended in tragedy. However, professionals are unanimous in the view that the results of the operation in Moscow were entirely successful.”

Vremya Novostei reports that the Federal Security Service (FSB) believes its team performed very well. Their foreign counterparts have described the actions of the Alpha and Vympel squads as excellent.

In recent days, all the national television networks have repeatedly noted that in Israel, the country with the greatest experience of such events, a rescue operation is considered successful if 20% of hostages are lost. Vremya Novostei quotes Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as saying of the Russian government’s response: “This was a shining example for all civilized nations, since there can be no compromises with terrorism.”

Meanwhile, the British press described the storming of the theater (with all the consequences) as “a barbarous act”. Of course, the official spokesperson of the British prime minister put it in much more restrained terms: “We deeply regret the loss of innocent lives, and welcome the fact that the siege is over.”

Patriarch Alexiy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, noted: “Thank God it is all over, with little bloodshed.” Talgat Tadzhuddin, chief Mufti of Russia, said something similar: “The terrorists got what they deserved.”

Very likely, as a commentator on one national television network said, each side is right in its own way: there is one truth for the government, for politicians and the security agencies – and another for the relatives of the victims. All everyone else can do is keep asking endless, naive questions.

Writing in Novaya Gazeta, Yuri Rost asks: “If Berlin had been taken three days later, how would that have changed global events? But around 200,000 sons and fathers would have returned home, lived full lives, had children, and increased the numbers of our patient people.”

But Russia’s governments, says Rost, “have never thought in single figures”. They are a long way from acknowledging that the life of each and every Russian citizen is unique and invaluable. In any case, one life is not so important for the government “that it cannot be disregarded, as too small a unit of measurement”.

In an interview with Gazeta, well-known journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an observer for Novaya Gazeta, described the rescue operation as unsuccessful: “Dozens of deaths – when there was a chance of getting all the hostages released.”

According to Politkovskaya, who spoke with the terrorists (gaining their permission to supply over 700 liters of water to the hostages, as well as fruit juice, all of which she delivered personally), there were only (“only”!) two conditions for the release of the hostages.

The first condition was that President Putin should appear on television and promise to end the war in Chechnya. Politkovskaya says: “I asked them if they wanted a presidential decree to that effect. Preparing a decree is a complicated procedure. But no, what they demanded was simply Putin’s word that the war is being ended.”

The second demand made by Movsar Barayev, leader of the hostage-takers, was that federal troops should be withdrawn from one district of Chechnya. According to Politkovskaya, the choice of district was left up to the federal government: “This demand could have been met, since there are very few troops in some districts, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to withdraw them.”

The terrorists promised to release the hostages once these two conditions had been met (whether their promises could be trusted is another question, one which it is now futile to discuss). But Barayev himself, with his gang, intended to remain in the theater. Politkovskaya says: “He intended to die fighting. There was a religious significance in this for them, obviously.”

But for the Kremlin, meeting these demands, so simple at first glance, would have meant hoisting the white flag – surrender, and a complete loss of face. Obviously, the regime that once promised so decisively to “kill off the terrorists in the toilets” would never have consented to such humiliation.

And therefore, says the Vremya Novostei newspaper, “the commandos were given their orders, which they carried out swiftly and skillfully, risking their own lives. It was demonstrated – to Russia, the rest of the world, and above all to the criminals – that at critical moments we do have solutions other than being forced to negotiate with terrorists and shamefully meet all their demands.”

Moreover, says Vremya Novostei, despite the government’s statements that storming the theater was a “sudden” and “enforced” decision, it was actually carefully planned and calculated: “Preparations for the rescue operation were underway virtually from the first hours of the crisis at 7 Melnikova Street.” When the terrorists started firing their guns in the early hours of Saturday morning, “this was not a signal for the start of the operation – only another argument in favor of it”.

The “key technical aspect” of the operation (as the Vedomosti newspaper puts it), as well as the main cause of death for most of the casualties among the hostages, was a special gas pumped into the building via the ventilation system.

The well-informed Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper had some explanations to offer on this point: the gas is called Kolokol-1; it is “heavy, and spreads quickly, downwards and outwards, to cover a large surface area”. The gas affects the human body within seconds, causing loss of consciousness for two to six hours “depending on a person’s state of health”.

Vedomosti noted: “Given that the hostages had been held captive for almost three days, under great stress – with most of them going without food, and experiencing thirst – and many having chronic heart conditions or other health problems – the probability of fatalities among them was significantly increased.”

Nevertheless, Vedomosti agrees with those who say the special services had no choice but to use gas: “After all, the terrorists only had to press a button in order to blow up the building and kill over 850 hostages.”

Yet another aspect which made “special measures” unavoidable is described by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, citing “sources close to those who took part in the special operation”.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta claims that the terrorists had accomplices among the audience in the theater, who were outwardly indistinguishable from other hostages. There was a danger that “if the operation had relied purely on the use of force, without using gas, some accomplice of the terrorists could have detonated the explosives”.

According to the sources of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the “insurance” group of accomplices “consisted of four to six people of Slavic appearance, who knew the layout of the theater and where the explosives had been planted”. These people were supposed to monitor the mood of the hostages, and to provide backup for the women terrorists who were prepared to blow up the building if government troops tried to storm it. These “fifth columnists” among the hostages caused the greatest concern among those who planned the rescue operation. They decided to use gas.

Of course, the basic problem here was determining the suitable concentration of gas. Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov noted in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that an insufficient concentration would have greatly increased the risks: “So they had to somehow find the right ‘gap’ between using too much gas and using too little.” We now know how successful these attempts were.

Izvestia comments: “Russia has been a nation of the cack-handed for centuries. We can carry out special operations – but we are unable to prevent matters from reaching the point where such operations become necessary. And after the victory, we never know exactly what to do with that victory. We are a nation of great feats, which are often necessitated by our own helplessness.”

And this is only one of the multitude of “naive” questions now concerning the media and citizens.

Izvestia asks: “How could the law enforcement agencies miss the appearance of forty Chechens and Arabs in central Moscow, with dozens of kilograms of explosives, and weapons? Why did it turn out that the bandits were led by Movsar Barayev, whom official sources had already declared to be dead, twice?”

Izvestia considers that the terrible events in Moscow were yet another demonstration of the quality of the everyday performance of our police force, which prefers to “simply harass anyone who has dark hair”. There can be no question of any “cooperation” between citizens and the police who “usually communicate with citizens through intimidation, rudeness, and extortion”. Clearly, notes Izvestia, dozens of people must have witnessed preparations for this terrorist act: “But not one of them ventured to confide their suspicions to the cops.”

There is no hope of a decrease in the number of bewildered questions in the near future. Vremya Novostei asks: “Over the years of war in Chechnya, have our special services set up any kind of reliable spy network, one which could at least warn us of such major terrorist attacks? Why did the interior minister only find out after the storming of the theater that a far-reaching terrorist network was active in Moscow? Or are we to expect further shocking news only after further shocking events?”

Well-known writer Vasily Aksenov asks some questions of his own in Moskovskie Novosti: “Could it be that working alongside such capable commandos, our police force includes a vast number of fools and bribe-takers?” Akesenov quotes Deputy Interior Minister Vasiliev, who said of the terrorists: “Now we shall purge the whole country of this filth.” Aksenov comments: “Before taking on such a major task, they should first purge their own ranks of incompetents.”

The Novye Izvestia newspaper has a different point of view, and different questions. It asks its readers if they don’t think it’s rather odd that all the terrorists (except two) were killed. And if we are to believe the FSB, they were killed as they lay unconscious, unable to offer any resistance. Novye Izvestia asks: “Why did they kill these guerrillas who had valuable information, and who were obviously of interest not only to the investigation team, but to the public? Whose interests did it serve to silence the terrorists permanently?”

Novye Izvestia considers that a person “with the intellectual level of Movsar Barayev” could not have organized “such a major and precise operation” in Moscow. Therefore, Novye Izvestia speculates that “the organizational capacities of more substantial forces” were behind the operation.

And if that was the case, it becomes clear why the guerrillas were able to reach the theater unhindered, and then to enter it. And why there were no police in the immediate vicinity. And why none of the explosive devices in the theater were detonated.

Indeed, it does seem strange: “Fifty explosive devices, and not a single explosion!” It’s hard to believe that after the gas was released, the women suicide bombers would have required more than a fraction of a second to push the buttons of the bombs strapped to their bodies. Novye Izvestia offers the theory that the terrorists only had fake bombs.

Novye Izvestia also asks what the government and the special services might have stood to gain from such a scenario.

Firstly: it would support the view that “Chechens are barbarians who will stop at nothing – and part of the international terrorist system. So, nations of the West, don’t judge us too harshly for being tough on terrorism. Help us to restore constitutional order. And no peace talks!”

Secondly, and more importantly, it would support the idea that “Russia has powerful, professional, and highly-skilled special agencies. They ought to be trusted. Only the special agencies are capable of saving the nation.”

But even if one accepts the theory of a conspiracy organized by the special agencies, it’s easy to see that the goal of such a conspiracy has not been achieved here. Neither politicians nor the public are inclined to make fundamental changes in their views on Chechnya as yet.

For example, Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov continues to insist, as before, that the solution to the problem of Chechnya lies in negotiations – “with everyone other than terrorists”. True, according to Gazeta, Nemtsov is at present uncertain about the possibility of Aslan Maskhadov participating in any such negotiations.

On the one hand, one of the hostage-takers told Nemtsov personally that the operation was being directly commanded by Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev. Nemtsov noted: “Maskhadov will have a lot of trouble explaining his role in this terrorist act. He only disassociated himself from the terrorists after the hostages had been freed.”

On the other hand, it would be irrational to exclude Maskhadov completely from any potential negotiations, “since to date the hope of dialogue with him has been the only chance of somehow influencing the groups of armed separatists.” In other words, there’s a problem here.

Ilya Maksakov, defense observer for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, considers that such hopes – as well as any accusations against Maskhadov – serve no purpose, since at present Maskhadov, president of Ichkeria, “is in no position to organize such a major operation, or to influence anything at all”. (However, Maksakov has no doubt that Maskhadov must have known of the preparations for the hostage-taking: “Only the Russian special agencies failed to notice the preparations.”)

Maksakov claims that Maskhadov has long since become an irrelevant figure in Chechnya. Thus, all the federal government’s attempts to blame him for events in Chechnya – let alone beyond its borders – are doomed to failure: “Moscow should not forget that it, rather than Maskhadov, bears full responsibility for the crisis in the North Caucasus, just as it does for the situation in any other region of Russia.”

Responsibility obviously presupposes a capacity to influence the situation. The government’s first clear response to the latest events became known on Monday.

According to Vremya Novostei, at a meeting with the Cabinet, President Putin “announced what amounts to a change in Russia’s military doctrine”.

It may be inferred from the president’s statements that the attention of the Armed Forces will now “be transferred from the present main enemy – NATO – to international terrorism”. This, in turn, could reduce the need for dozens of tank divisions, and create a need for “squads of commandos, for example, who could act behind enemy lines, providing coordinates for precision attacks on terrorist bases”. Vremya Novostei notes that it’s a truism that generals always prepare themselves for the previous war; but the president has resolved to do away with such anachronisms.

Meanwhile, Vremya MN says there is no question of amending Russia’s military doctrine: “In principle, the doctrine contains enough words to cover any contingency.” Changes to deployment plans for the Armed Forces are more likely, primarily in terms of neutralizing terrorists – preferably in advance, in order to prevent any more “failures like the one at the Dubrovka theater”.

Actually, on this last point Vremya MN is most skeptical. Its defense observer, Viktor Litovkin, considers there is a real danger that “on the pretext of ‘amending deployment plans for the Armed Forces’ there will be further personnel reorganization measures in the Army and Navy, which would essentially not lead to increasing the number of professionals and masters of counter-terrorism, but only to expelling those commanders who for some reason are unacceptable to the present leadership of the Defense Ministry and General Staff.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the president’s first policy statement after the terrorist act fundamentally changes the basic objectives of the Russian Armed Forces: “From now on, they may take on domestic functions, police functions.”

The president obviously considers the term “international terrorism” to apply primarily to Chechen guerrillas. And this is precisely the challenge the Armed Forces will have to meet – now beyond the borders of Chechnya, emphasizes Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

It appears that the Russian military will have to find inspiration in the example set by its Israeli counterpart: “It is clear that the extremists will no longer use hostage-taking to put pressure on the Kremlin. They will probably follow in the footsteps of Palestinian radicals, who use terrorism to instill fear in the entire population.”

Vremya MN adds: “Even those who most wholeheartedly believe in the efficacy of punitive measures cannot fail to observe that the cruelty of the Israelis, their absolute refusal to negotiate with terrorists, and the terrorism practised by Palestinian suicide bombers are links in the same terrible chain.”

The Zavtra newspaper says it is time to pose a direct question to those who flatly oppose any negotiations at all: “Do you really want to live as Israel has lived in recent years? Do you really want to be washing off blood and picking up pieces of human bodies on city streets every week, if not every day?”

Vremya MN goes on to say that now, of course, it will be possible to continue escalating the use of force in Chechnya, citing the monstrous terrorist act in Moscow as a reason. “However, we should ask ourselves this: what has not been done over the past three years to pacify Chechnya? Bombing, shelling, the ruined city of Grozny, villages wiped off the map, search operations, senseless executions – we’ve already had all that.”

Leading human rights campaigner Sergei Kovalev says in an interview with Kommersant-Vlast magazine that there is no geographic front line in Chechnya; actually, the front line “is everywhere, and it runs through the Kremlin as well”.

In Kovalev’s view, what’s happening in Chechnya is partisan warfare, an unwinnable war: “And it will continue for a long time, until we end this war.”

Kovalev recalls how “ordinary Chechens” greeted Shamil Basaev’s detachment when it returned from the siege of Budennovsk: “They got a hero’s welcome.”

The Moskovskie Novosti weekly says Chechens are taking much the same view of the Nord-Ost theater operation.

At any rate, when the Moskovskie Novosti special correspondent visited Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia, responses like the following were recorded: “I would never strap explosives to my body. But I envy those girls who found the courage to take a stand against evil.” Or this: “We have been held hostage here for three years – do we count for less?” Or this: “A musical, huh? Our children’s stomachs have swollen from hunger, they have died, they have spent their holidays being bombed – while you people in Moscow organize parties for your children on New Year’s Eve.”

Both sides are becoming more brutal. Boris Berezovsky notes in an interview with Kommersant-Vlast: “I have no doubt that this is only the beginning, and it may be continued anywhere, at any time: there are 700,000 Chechens living beyond the borders of Chechnya, and not all of them are peacefully disposed.”

And here’s some information from “across the lines”. Gazeta reports that Aslan Maskhadov’s envoy Akhmed Zakaev, in an interview with Reuters, promised that the guerrillas would soon launch even more resolute actions than the Moscow hostage-taking – actions aimed at forcing the federal troops to leave Chechnya.

Zakaev says that the “elected leaders of Chechnya” are entirely prepared for political dialogue with Moscow, but “some Chechen guerrillas, driven to desperation, are no longer under their control.”

Zakaev confirms that more terrorist attacks are possible, and likely. The next group of Chechen terrorists would be quite capable of seizing a nuclear facility in Russia. In that event, disaster would strike not only Russia, but all of Europe. Zakaev made these promises just before the Chechen congress opened in Copenhagen.

Zakaev said: “If the Russian military is waiting for us to surrender, then it is waiting in vain. We are capable of continuing the fight for as long as it takes – five, ten, or fifteen years.”

Most importantly, this war – invisible until the very moment of its discovery – is becoming ubiquitous and non-specific. Alexander Vedernikov, leading orchestra conductor at the Bolshoi Theater, was asked in a recent interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta about what measures should be taken to defend museums, theaters, cultural centers and other public places against terrorists. Vedernikov replied: “Any form of defense against terrorism is ineffective, in principle. A terrorist is like the chess-player with the white pieces: he opens the game. The defenders are playing with the black pieces, and they’re always one move behind.”

Among the most colorfully emotional prescriptions for a solution is the call issued by Vasily Aksenov in Moskovskie Novosti: “Let’s give Chechnya its coveted independence. Hold a referendum in Chechnya – and if the majority should oppose continued membership of the Russian Federation, let’s raise our hats to them: There’s the door, dear Chechens! It hasn’t been a pleasure knowing you, and we won’t miss you one bit.”

Another article in Moskovskie Novosti, by leading political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, says: “Simple solutions are for simple-minded people.” Yet on the other hand, now – after what happened in that Moscow theater – it’s hard to believe that complex solutions will prove optimal.

So Vasily Aksenov’s views have every chance of gaining popularity. Especially if Akhmed Zakaev should keep his world.

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