The mass hostage taking in a Moscow theater and its tragic aftermath have made it clear that the Russian authorities have no intention of seeking a political accommodation with the Chechen resistance regardless of the cost in innocent lives.
When the crisis began, Vladimir Shamanov, the former commander of the eastern group of internal forces in Chechnya, said on Russian television that the government would have to make political concessions to the terrorists holding almost a thousand persons in a mined building. The alternative, a storm of the building, would lead to too great a loss of life.
This position was echoed in the press and, indirectly, by Putin himself who said that saving the lives of the hostages was his first concern. Despite this, the Russian authorities never engaged in - or even contemplated - serious political negotiations with the terrorists.
The terrorists described themselves as kamikadzes and said that they yearned for death yet their actions showed that their real goals were political.
In their first statement of their demands, the terrorists said that they would free the hostages if there were an immediate end to the war in Chechnya and the withdrawal from Chechnya of Russian troops.
On Friday, October 25, the second day of the crisis, Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, emerged from the theater after five hours of talks and said that the terrorists had agreed that the hostages could be freed in exchange for a statement from Putin that the war was over and the verified withdrawal of troops from part of Chechnya. They also agreed to Politkovskaya’s suggestion that Lord Judd, a member of the Council of Europe, who has investigated the human rights situation in Chechnya, be asked to verify the withdrawal.
The only known Russian counterproposal came from Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), who promised that the terrorists’s lives would be guaranteed if they freed their hostages. Insofar as the terrorists had already announced that their own lives did not concern them and they were as “keen on death as you are on living, ” Patrushev’s proposal resembled a deliberate non-offer.
Shortly thereafter, the Russian authorities placed the blame for the crisis not on Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, its real author, but on Aslan Maskhadov, the elected president of independent Chechnya, whom they said was the mastermind of the attack. Maskhadov’s representative, Akhmed Zakayev, announced in Ccpenhagen that Maskhadov was not involved in the attack and condemned all acts of terror. The Russian charge, however, eliminated in advance any possibility of negotiations with Maskhadov as a way out of the crisis.
No government can tolerate having its policies set by terrorists but neither can it be completely indifferent to the fate of its citizens. This is particularly true when its own incompetence in allowing a small army to take over a theater in the middle of the capital is responsible for their condition. In this case, there were at least three factors that should have weighed in favor of making some political concession if not to the terrorists, at least to the Chechen opposition, in order to avoid a catastrophic loss of life.
First, Russia has made political concessions to terrorists before. In June, 1995, nearly 150 Chechen rebels seized a hospital in the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk and took 2,000 people hostage. More than 100 hostages died in bungled rescue attempts. The crisis ended when prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, negotiating with Basayev, in front of television cameras, promised the rebels a truce, peace talks and safe passage back to Chechnya.
The outcome of the Budyonnovsk crisis was regarded as shameful by many in the Russian leadership but it led ultimately to the end of the First Chechen War and to the fact that 1996-99 was a period in which no Russian soldiers died fighting Chechen guerillas.
Second, there was the possibility in the theater crisis to open talks not with the terrorists but with Maskhadov. Throughout the Second Chechen War, which began in 1999, Putin has refused to negotiate with Maskhadov until he and his supporters lay down their arms. This refusal means that it is Russia and not the Chechen resistance that is rejecting a political solution and relying exclusively on force.
Although the terrorists threatened to blow themselves up, they were not committed to taking their own lives. With the exception of the leader of the gang, Movsar Barayev, all of the terrorists were masked. It made no sense for them to conceal their identities if they intended to commit suicide. It is much more likely that they hoped to achieve their purposes by forcing political concessions from the Russian government.
It is also far from certain that the terrorists intended to execute hostages. The Russians depicted the shooting of two hostages as executions but it later became clear that they were shot during an escape attempt. According to the newspaper, Kommersant, after the two hostages were shot, the terrorists threatened to shoot everyone in the hall but they not only did not shoot anyone but actually pulled the bodies of the victims into the foyer where they were picked up by an arriving ambulance. Despite serious injuries, Tatyana Starkova and Pavel Zakharov, survived. In fact, up until that time, the terrorists were pursing a rational policy of getting publicity for their cause. They had to understand that executing hostages ran the risk of triggering an immediate storm of the building and destroying all hope of their achieving their objectives.
Under these circumstances, it is, at least possible, that an offer to open negotiations with Maskhadov, the man with whom Russia signed a peace treaty in 1996, could have ended the crisis, particularly if it was coupled with a general cease fire which, as Boris Kagarlitsky of Novaya Gazeta pointed out, could have been implemented in less than 24 hours.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Russia should have made political concessions to the Chechen opposition because no fundamental principle is at stake in the refusal to end the war in Chechnya.
Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation because Stalin, aware of the Chechens’ independent spirit, did not grant them a separate republic. The Chechens, however, are as distinct from the Russians in terms of their culture, traditions and history, as the Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, all of whom now have their own states.
After the end of the First Chechen War in 1996, Russia recognized Chechnya’s independence and promised billions of dollars in aid for reconstruction. The money, however, was stolen in Moscow and, as a result, thousands of armed men were left in a ruined republic with no hope of normal employment. At the same time, political and criminal circles in Moscow established links to Maskhadov’s radical political opponents helping to foster the kidnapping trade that turned life in independent Chechnya in 1996-99 into a living hell.
In 1999, Russia launched the Second Chechen War after apartment buildings were bombed in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk, killing 300 people. The bombings were blamed on Chechen militants and united the country behind a new war in Chechnya that turned the previously unknown Putin into a national leader and guaranteed his election as president. In the period since those bombings took place, however, there has been no proof that the Chechens were responsible for them whereas powerful evidence has emerged that they were carried out by the FSB deliberately to provoke a new war in Chechnya, including the fact that FSB agents were caught planting what they later claimed was a dummy bomb in the basement of an apartment building in Ryazan.
The Second Chechen War has now been going on for three years. In that period, nearly 4,500 Russian soldiers have died. (About an equal number died in the first war.) The Russians have responded with a campaign of terror against the Chechen civilian population.
In the spring of 2000, large scale battles ended and the Russian military went into the kidnapping business, picking up Chechen males, torturing them and holding them for ransom. The price for the return of a relative, often barely alive, started at $1,000 but has fallen as the population has become increasingly impoverished. Often, the victims are killed and the family is forced to pay a ransom for the victim’s body. In addition, 2,000 persons arrested without a fight by the Russian military were executed (with their bodies found later) or simply disappeared.
When the second war began, many Chechens would have welcomed the Russian presence but the barbarity of the Russians’ actions has assured that a sizable portion of the population now will never reconcile itself to Russian rule. The result is a bloody standoff in which neither side can prevail and that can only negotiations can end.
Ultimately, the failure to resolve the hostage crisis with the help of political concessions came at a high price. As of this writing, the official death toll is 118 but this is almost certainly an underestimation. Many of the 45 persons listed in grave condition are believed, in fact, to be dead and the final death toll, according to unofficial sources, is expected to be over 200, with only one of the dead hostages known to have been killed by the terrorists.
The FSB apparently knew that there would be many deaths as a result of flooding the theater with lethal gas and that the hostages would continue to die even in the hospitals. It was for that reason that for nearly 24 hours, they did not provide reliable information about the number of victims. The first report was that ten persons had died. This was changed to 30 deaths and then 67 and then 90, 100 and, then, 118.
At the same time, despite the government’s awareness of the danger of using lethal gas on the weakened hostages, however, many of the deaths were the result of simple negligence. Doctors arriving at the scene of the tragedy were not told that the hostages had been gassed and not provided with the antidote that had to be injected immediately. The hostages began to be injected with the antidote only somewhat later. As a result, the first wave of victims died en masse.
Although the Moscow health authorities had days to prepare for the storm’s aftermath, insufficient numbers of ambulances were sent to the scene. This forced doctors to put several hostages into each ambulance and made it impossible to provide urgent medical care or separate out the most critical cases. It also forced doctors to rely on ordinary buses for the transport of critically ill and unconscious patients, many of whom died as a result. There was mass confusion as hostages who were already dead were put in ambulances while persons who could still be saved were loaded into busses and there were cases where persons who were still alive were mistakenly about to be sent to morgues.
The confusion continued at the hospitals. 321 persons were sent to hospital 13 overwhelming the hospital’s ability to accept and effectively treat them.
According to some estimates, nearly a hundred persons have died because of the ineffectiveness of the rescue effort once the gas was used, leading to the inevitable conclusion that, for the Russian authorities, the overriding objective was to destroy the terrorists. Saving the lives of the hostages was, at best, an afterthought.
In the Moscow theater crisis, Putin demonstrated his oft stated intention to “wipe out the terrorists in their outhouses.” The consequences of the theater crisis for Russia and the world, however, may become increasingly serious. The crisis was an example of the frightening potential of modern terrorism. But it was also perhaps the last chance for a resolution of the Chechen crisis. The Chechens have taken hostages in the past but they have done so in order to press demands that were essentially political. Now, having lost hope of a political solution and with a ready supply of money from the Middle East, the next step may well be an abandonment of political objectives in favor of a campaign of indiscriminate terror.
This article appeared on National Review Online on October 29, 2002.