Russian to the Core


    While Muscovites mourned, Putin had the Danes arrest Chechen moderate Zakayev

    As they watched the horror at a Moscow theater unfold live on television last month, some Russians must have wondered what exactly their President, Vladimir Putin, was doing. During the three days that Chechen rebels held more than 800 people hostage in the Theater Center on Dubrovka, the Kremlin released only a few, silent images of Putin, in his office talking with aides — prompting one exasperated news presenter to bring on a lip-reader to try to work out what Putin was saying. The President's website reported that he was "immediately" informed of the hostage situation at 11:10 p.m. on Oct. 23, though the terrorists had seized the theater two hours earlier. In Putin's address to the nation after Russia's Spetsnaz commando forces mounted the rescue operation, the Russian leader issued one terse statement of regret: "We could not save everyone. Forgive us." Yet even as he sought to remain coolly remote to the public, in private Putin exulted. Aides say that after the standoff ended the President invited the commandos to the Kremlin for a closed-door celebration.

    But for Putin, as much as for those who coordinated the operation using a sedative gas that killed 117 hostages, the taste of triumph is quickly dissipating. Putin's approval ratings soared to 85% in the immediate aftermath of the standoff, as grieving Russians cheered the President's vow to hunt down terrorists "wherever they may be located." But Putin's government was also forced last week to confront questions about the Kremlin's Soviet-style stonewalling on the nature of the gas and the failure of the Russian authorities to prepare doctors for treating the poisoned. After four days of silence, Russian Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko acknowledged that the gas was based on derivatives of fentanyl, a common medical anesthetic, but he insisted it was not known to be fatal.

    Putin's role in the decision to use the gas is still a mystery. When asked by TIME where Putin worked during the hostage crisis, a top aide said merely that "the President was constantly in Moscow." Government officials say Vladimir Pronichev, deputy chief of Russia's intelligence agency and head of the emergency staff charged with handling the crisis, gave the orders to the Spetsnaz to pump gas through the theater vents and seize the hall. During the standoff, Putin, according to members of the emergency staff, stayed in touch with Pronichev through a senior aide on Chechen affairs, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, and was given the broad outline of the rescue plans. But government sources say it is unlikely the security chiefs received Putin's approval to use gas on the theater. They didn't need it. "If the commanders had said, 'We are going to use "special means," ' " says an official close to Putin, referring to the use of gas, "he would have said O.K. He thinks like these people. He trusts them completely."

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    But outside the Kremlin, the second-guessing came fast. U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow told reporters on Oct. 29 that "perhaps with a little more information, at least a few more of the hostages may have survived." A Moscow doctor says the government has refused to admit that dozens of hospitalized victims remain unconscious and that most are unlikely to recover without significant brain damage.

    A case can be made that Putin had little choice but to use overwhelming force against terrorists who had wired the theater with explosives and threatened to bring the house down. But the ruthless rescue mission and the government's haphazard handling of the crisis were in many respects the product of Putin's personality and leadership style and reveal some of the chronic weaknesses of his presidency. While known as a control freak, Putin still lacks confidence in his authority over the Russian bureaucracy; he delegates operational decision making to top aides, especially on security issues. Though by nature a pragmatic politician with little ideological drive, Putin is obsessed with defending the power and prestige of the Russian state — a fixation that is now likely to drag Russia deeper into a costly war against Chechen separatists. "Putin has emerged as a victor, but he is also trapped," says Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "He needs to go on having victories [but] a debacle instead of a victory next time may totally wipe him out as a leader."

    Putin's reluctance to take on the security apparatus has delayed reforms in that sector and encouraged its bureaucracy to cover up mistakes, like the disastrous effort to rescue the Kursk submarine in 2000. Though many fewer people died at the Moscow theater than in the U.S. on Sept. 11, a Bush Administration official contends that for sheer incompetence "this was a worse intelligence failure than the one we experienced on 9/11. The plot leaders in Moscow were already known. The Russians claim these people came all the way from Chechnya. How could the security services not have been watching them?" He adds, "Heads should roll."

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