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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
Analysis: Chechen danger for Putin
Tank on the streets of Moscow
The chinks in Russia's armour have been exposed

Russian President Vladimir Putin was elected president as the man Russians thought could sort out Chechnya once and for all.

Vladimir Putin
Putin built his reputation on Chechnya
The horror of the Moscow hostage-taking therefore puts him in a difficult situation. Even with his sky-high approval ratings, it's a crisis that it would be dangerous for him to be seen to mishandle.

However, the fact that the conflict - which long ago ceased to be a daily concern of ordinary Russians - has now come to Moscow, could also work for him rather than against him.

Open in new window : In pictures
Images of life amid Chechnya's war

For some it will confirm the view that a hard line was, and is, justified. This was the effect of a series of apartment block bombings before troops were sent back to Chechnya in 1999.

But others will inevitably ask why, more than three years later, the war has not yet been won.


The incident, along with some other recent catastrophes, including the repeated downing of military helicopters in Chechnya itself, makes a mockery of Kremlin pronouncements that the war is over.

Aslan Maskhadov
This is a disaster for Aslan Maskhadov

The gap between rhetoric and reality is dangerously reminiscent of the Yeltsin era, as is the spectacle of the might of the Russian state paralysed and humiliated by the action of a small group of guerrillas.

How did a group of Chechen fighters travel to Moscow, and move, heavily armed through the city, without getting found out, or stopped? There is no easy way for Mr Putin, who was a security chief before he became a politician, to answer this.

Some liberal voices in Russia will also ask why no serious attempt has been made to reach a negotiated solution with the rebels, but since the start of the Putin presidency in 2000 they have been an isolated and downtrodden group.

Disaster for Maskhadov

In one way, the incident will help Mr Putin, as it appears to support his view of the Chechen rebels as terrorists.

Mainly Muslim region in south Russia which declared independence in 1991
Tens of thousands killed in two subsequent wars
A mass Chechen hostage-taking in 1995 left more than 100 civilians dead

Russian citizens needed no confirmation of this, and some foreign governments had already come to the view that there were links between some of the Chechen rebels and al-Qaeda.

Mr Putin has never let foreign disapproval of Russian tactics in Chechnya tie his hands, but Russian forces in the breakaway republic may now be even more determined to act as they see fit.

For the Chechen rebels themselves - at least the more moderate elements, including the elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov - the incident is a public relations disaster.

For a long time, Western governments continued to urge Moscow to open negotiations with Mr Maskhadov, though less forcefully after 11 September 2001.

Already the US has ceased to recommend him as a suitable negotiating partner, and other countries are now increasingly likely to take the same view.

Jihad funding

The fact that the Chechen gang leader now holding hostages in Moscow almost certainly acted without Mr Maskhadov's approval, and that his spokesmen are vigorously disowning him, is unlikely to cut much ice.

Mr Maskhadov has long been weakened by the fact that the main financial backing for the rebel cause comes from the Muslim world supporting a jihad, or holy war.

His more radical Islamic field commanders have correspondingly benefited.

From the funding point of view, the seizure of the Moscow theatre may be good publicity, prompting sympathisers to dig deeper into their pockets.

One possible upshot is the strengthening of hardliners on both sides, and the further weakening of any prospect for peace.

Siege reports

Key stories

Chechen conflict



See also:

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