Moscow Gas Debacle Leaves Putin Unscathed

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Vladimir Putin during a Cabinet meeting at the Kremlin

President Vladimir Putin faced rising criticism Monday as Russians digested the cost of Saturday's dramatic hostage rescue. Medical authorities have revealed that all 115 hostages who died on Saturday when Russian special forces stormed a Moscow theater to end a three-day siege by Chechen gunmen were killed not by their captors, but by a mystery gas used to subdue the terrorists. Russian officials expressed regret over the casualties, but emphasized that their intervention had saved the bulk of the 700 hostages the Chechens were planning to kill — and they refused to disclose the type of gas used, or answer questions about the dosage or the extent of their arrangements to make available antidotes. President Putin stressed his belief that the theater siege was an attack on Russia by the forces of "international terrorism." TIME's Moscow bureau chief Paul Quinn-Judge phoned in this report: How have reports that most of the hostages killed in the Moscow theater siege were poisoned by the gas used by their rescuers affected Russian views of how the crisis was handled?

Paul Quinn-Judge: Well, it certainly underscores the perception that the state may be more concerned with its own prestige than with the wellbeing of its citizens. But people are all over the map on this. The immediate reaction, on Saturday, was very positive, people saying "At last we've shown we can do something, and can stand up to this horrible threat." My suspicion is that when people on Sunday turned on their radios and heard that the hostage death toll was actually 117, and that almost all had died from gas poisoning and that the government was still refusing to say what type of gas it had used, people may have been shaken. The Russian media is gently raising the question of whether it had to be done this way, and whether the authorities were correct in withholding information about the gas. But it's too early to tell how this will play out.

You can be confident, however, that in the long run President Vladimir Putin's prestige won't suffer in Russian eyes as a result. Russians really like the fact that there's a tough guy running the state. And they don't expect the state to be a benign entity — over the last hundred years, they've come to expect that any situation in which the state's authority is challenged results in a lot of unpleasantness. Still, here's Putin having swallow the fact that his security forces killed two hostages for each terrorist, in an operation resulting from a war that he said was over?

PQJ: But Putin is not linking this incident to the war in Chechnya (which he says is over); he's saying this hostage crisis was a product of international terrorism. He's trying to very hard hitch himself to the American bandwagon, saying this has proven, as Russians say, on their own skin, that Russia is a target of international terrorism, and that they'll fight it by any means necessary. And in doing so, Putin is making a terrible mistake. Why would it be a mistake to link Chechen terrorism to al-Qaeda?

PQJ: Because while al-Qaeda is waging a global 'jihad' against all things Western, the Chechens are fighting a war for national survival and independence. Seizing the theater was a brutal, heartless act of terrorism, no question. But al-Qaeda would have blown up the theater and everyone in it as soon as they were inside, and then celebrated the fact that they killed 800 Russians. These Chechens actually had a series of demands — they were totally unrealistic, of course, and there was no way Putin was ever going to agree to withdraw his forces from Chechnya. Nor did they have any exit strategy. But they were still using terrorism as a means, however misguided and brutal, of exerting political pressure.

To tar it with the brush of international terrorism is not only incorrect; it's disastrous political mistake. Putin is not saying we have a problem in Chechnya that has to be resolved. He's saying simply these are international terrorists that have to be eliminated. But what he's ignoring is the frightening reality on the ground that many young Chechens have come to believe they have nothing to lose, that they're going to die by age 30 and that they want to go down fighting, hoping to kill as many Russians as they can. The 50 people who seized the theater in Moscow are unlikely to be the only Chechens available for such operations. Putin's response ignores the fact that conditions in Chechnya are such that this is unlikely to be the last act of terror.

Here were some 50 young people so stripped of what we feel to be fundamental human values — a sense of right or wrong, the right to have one's life, the right to survival — that they've become totally amoral. They gave a lot of thought as to how to place their bombs in the theater so as to kill 700 innocent civilians, simply on the grounds that the Russian forces kill a lot of people in Chechnya. And those sentiments may well deepen the ties between Chechen separatists and al-Qaeda. We're not seeing any sign, right now, of the cycle being broken. Those who seized the theater in Moscow may have hoped to get the Russian army out of Chechnya, but they're more likely to have provoked a new offensive. I don't think that offensive will be any more effective in solving the problem. But many more people will be killed.