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 Monday, 28 October, 2002, 15:15 GMT
Soviet methods for a Russian crisis
Vladimir Putin
Putin began his career in the Soviet secret police

More than two days after the ending of the siege of a Moscow theatre, doctors treating survivors still do not know what they are up against.

The special forces who carried out the operation have resorted to the standard Soviet approach when asked awkward questions: say nothing, even if, as in this case, lives could be lost.

There are a number of key questions that have not been addressed:

  • What was the gas that was pumped into the theatre to subdue the hostage-takers?

  • Was it a banned chemical agent that had never been tried before?

  • Or was it an acceptable substance but the quantity used was too strong, especially given the weakened state of a number of the hostages after more than 50 hours of captivity?

  • Why was no antidote available to be given to the hostages as soon as the troops entered the building or, at the very latest, when they were taken to hospital?

The President, Vladimir Putin, cannot simply push these questions onto the security services.

It is claimed that the order to storm the building in the early hours of Saturday morning did not come from the president.

That may well be so, but the authorisation to take that decision clearly was given by Mr Putin.

And in the two days that the siege had been under way, it is unthinkable that the Russian leader had not been made aware of exactly what measures were to be taken including the use of gas.

Security gaps

But if these are the questions that are being posed by certain sections of Russian society, there is a second string which has been pushed into the background by Saturday's events but which will certainly be high in Mr Putin's mind.

How did it happen that a group of 53 Chechen rebels were able to gather in the Russian capital with a sizeable amount of explosive?

Army sniper near the theatre
Russian officers may have acted on their own initiative
Ever since the apartment block bombings of 1999 were blamed on the Chechens, people with the swarthy appearance of Caucasian nationalities have been subjected to regular checks on the streets of Moscow.

The leader of the group, Movsar Barayev, was known to the Russian authorities but managed to travel to Moscow from the Caucasus undetected.

Some are suggesting that not all of the group were Chechens.

It has been pointed out that Chechen women do not tend to wear Islamic clothing or head covering, yet the women who appeared in a video recording made before the theatre was taken, but released immediately afterwards, were so dressed.

This suggests possible foreign involvement. If this is the case, it is another failure on the part of the security forces.

Media control

Mr Putin is trying to put on a tough face. The war in Chechnya is his responsibility.

The apparent success of the campaign in its early months was a major factor in seeing him elected as Russian President in March 2000.

But one reason why he has not lost public support for the campaign in the way that his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, did for the war of 1994 to 1996, is that he has managed to keep a check on news coming out of Chechnya.

It seems that that limit on freedom of speech which Mr Putin has imposed is part of the thinking behind the decision of the security forces to say nothing now about what they used to end the siege.

To seasoned Soviet watchers, this lack of openness - the "glasnost" which Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged in the late 1980's - seems all too familiar. And it has more recent repercussions, too.

The sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000 was shrouded in secrecy and lies by the Russian Navy.

Certainly, for the Russian military, old habits do not just die hard - they remain a way of life.


Siege reports

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Chechen conflict

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