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Last Updated: Monday, 6 September 2004, 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK
Analysis: Russia's Caucasus quagmire
By Dr Jonathan Eyal
Military analyst

Nothing whatsoever can explain or justify the unspeakable cruelty of the terrorists, who remain solely responsible for the wholesale massacre of children in the school in Beslan.

Russian special forces soldier in Beslan
Russian troops proved ill-prepared for a mass rescue
Nevertheless, some responsibility for the calamitous outcome also belongs to Russia's special military units which, yet again, bungled a rescue operation and exacerbated the tragedy.

The Russian Spetsnaz, or special forces, have had a glorious reputation for decades.

Indeed, as the Soviet Union collapsed, they were the only troops of an otherwise despised and ridiculed Russian military still considered fashionable.

Every street market in Russia sells some items of their uniform or insignia, and most young Russian men - even those who will do everything to escape military service - still wear them eagerly.

Special status

The Alpha hostage rescue unit, directly subordinated to Russia's FSB security service, is considered an elite within the elite - the ultimate in military ruthlessness and precision.

Yet, as the horror of the Beslan school indicates, much of this reputation is unwarranted.

Devastated Grozny
A decade of war has devastated much of the Chechen capital Grozny
The Russian military's first failure during the latest school hostage crisis was in the overall strategy.

As any anti-terrorism expert knows, not all such hostage crises are the same. If the number of hostages is relatively small, the situation can be fairly stable, and a government has some time to negotiate with the terrorists, while preparing its response.

But if the number of hostages is large - and it was huge in the Beslan school - the situation is inherently unstable from the start, and violence can erupt at any moment.

The reason for this is that the terrorists themselves are unsure of their situation, and the chances are high that some of the hostages would rebel, thereby starting the shoot-out everyone is seeking to avoid.

Taken by surprise

Either way, it should have been clear from the start that, even if the Russian government ruled out a military assault on the school - as President Vladimir Putin now claims - preparations to storm the building at a moment's notice should have been ready.

If there was ever a surer way of encouraging further terrorism, the Russian military has invented it

Yet nothing of the kind appears to have been planned: when the explosions and shooting started, it caught the Russian military commanders completely by surprise.

The result was no less than 10 hours of shooting - just about the surest way of guaranteeing heavy casualties.

Ultimately, the Russian troops did what they know best: shoot in all directions with massive firepower, rather than execute the surgical strike required in such circumstances.

The result was that 40% of all the hostages were killed, and another 40% were injured, a staggering tally which is much worse than in any other mass hostage crisis in living memory.

The conclusion is inescapable. Despite massive resources poured into the training of special forces, the Russian officer class still belongs to the generation educated in waging total war on the plains of Europe, rather than the carefully calibrated art of a small amount of firepower, precisely applied for minutes in order to achieve the desired outcome.

Poor coordination

Initial indications suggest that Russia's divided command structure did not help, either.

Map of the North Caucasus

The Alpha force, for instance, had its own plans to storm the building, but these were not shared with the central intelligence commando units who were also in place, or with the regular troops who provided the security cordon around the school.

It is quite likely, therefore, that some of the victims were hit by cross-fire from those who were supposed to rescue them.

Nor is this blunder unique: in every previous mass hostage situation, Russia's special forces used too much firepower, and used it inefficiently.

This was the case with a hospital hostage crisis in the Caucasus in 1995, and with the attempted rescue of hostages in a Moscow theatre building in October 2002.

In all such cases, a huge percentage of the hostages perished; sadly, the Russian concept of rescue usually comes in a coffin.

Chechnya bloodbath

Yet the blunders of the Russian military extend much further, and encompass not only the response to terrorist attacks, but also the strategy of preventing these attacks from taking place.

During the last 10 years of a vicious war in Chechnya, thousands of young, inexperienced Russian soldiers were sent into unfamiliar territory where they were instantly slaughtered.

Moscow, in turn, responded by carpet-bombing complete villages and cities.

With each day that passed, the opportunity to for a peaceful settlement faded even further into the distance.

In Chechnya, destroyed towns are now inhabited almost exclusively by old people, abandoned by younger men who escaped to the mountains to continue fighting.

A great deal of the suicide bombers and terrorists now are women - the so-called "Black Widows" - sisters of dead Chechen fighters, sworn to avenge their own families, even at the cost of their own lives.

If there was ever a surer way of encouraging further terrorism, the Russian military has invented it.

Widespread corruption and demoralisation among the Russian troops complete this sad picture. In quite a few documented cases, Russian conscripts sold their equipment to intermediaries who then passed it to Chechen separatists.

And checkpoints, set up throughout the turbulent southern Caucasus region in order to hamper the movement of terrorists, are easily circumvented with a small bribe.

Empty promises

In his first reactions after the Beslan school atrocity, President Putin has promised to overhaul his country's entire security arrangements.

But similar promises have been made in the past, and usually with little effect. For the task facing Russia is huge. It is not only one of retraining its special forces, improving co-operation between the various military commands and ministries and getting the military to talk to the security services.

Fundamentally, it is a question of overhauling Russia's entire strategy in the Caucasus, not only in order to meet future terrorist challenges, but ultimately to prevent the creation of new terrorist organisations. The chances still are that nothing of the kind will be accomplished.

Dr Jonathan Eyal is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

The BBC's Jonathan Charles
"Down almost every street we found another funeral procession"

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