The Broader Crisis

Vladimir Putin may have brought an end to the Moscow hostage crisis, but he now faces the wrath that follows the death of more than 100 citizens, most of whom seem to have died at the hands of their rescuers. This "ending" is but a chapter in a wider crisis for the president, one whose gravity he had tried to ignore. More than three years after he promised to "solve" the Chechnya issue, its dangers and cruelties are only multiplying. Ordinary Russians must now start asking hard questions about where Moscow's Chechen policy is taking them.

Their first conclusion will be that they are not properly protected. Some ask why Movsar Barayev and his followers chose to embark on a suicide mission now; but the question is better put thus: Why had this not happened before? After all, Chechnya has suffered eight years of perpetual warfare and contains hundreds of men as brutalized and desperate as Barayev. Now, almost anything is possible. Russia is vast, with vulnerable targets and weak policing. As a Chechen moderate who has long called for negotiations told me bitterly: "The Russians should thank God that they just seized a house of culture and not a nuclear power station."

When it has come to this, a radical reassessment of the Chechen issue is needed. The first point to be made is initially rather surprising: This conflict is no longer essentially about Chechen independence or the integrity of the Russian Federation. In the early 1990s, the Kremlin feared a "domino effect" in which other autonomous republics would copy Chechnya's demands. It is clear now that that fear is unfounded. Russia is a much more viable state than it was then, while any other would-be separatist would be crazy to want to copy the Chechen experience. For a variety of reasons, Chechnya was and is an exception.

The Chechen separatists' two attempts at independence, in 1991-94 and 1996-99, were disastrous and incompetent, albeit in the hardest of circumstances. Now, three years into another war, Chechnya itself is utterly ruined and centuries away from statehood. The main city, Grozny, now resembles wartime Stalingrad -- all infrastructure is wrecked, there is no functioning economy and people care only about their survival. In that context the argument over independence has become almost theological.

What is at stake in Chechnya now is security in its broadest sense. Ordinary Chechens, the vast majority of whom reject the Islamist radicals, have no security from a Russian military that resembles a marauding criminal gang. In their sweep operations, known as zachistki, masked Russian soldiers rampage through villages, supposedly checking for rebel males, but actually engaged in extortion, rape, abduction and torture. What most Chechens want therefore is not so much independence as some international guarantees for their own survival.

Russia's own security fears are now plain for all to see. Moscow does not want to let Chechnya go, not because there is any risk of its independence, but because of the fear that it could turn into a vortex of lawlessness once again, exporting violence outside its own borders. Those fears are justified -- although the Kremlin bears the largest responsibility by far for creating them.

Ever since 1999, Putin has adopted the simplest approach in confronting this problem: The only solution in Chechnya is a military one and he will not negotiate with separatists, unless they surrender unconditionally. The authorities will likely use the Moscow siege as further proof of their arguments. In particular, they will repeat ever more loudly that it is not worth negotiating with the moderate Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov. Either Maskhadov approved of the attack, the argument goes, in which case he is a terrorist, or he was unaware of it, in which case he is not in control of militants and not worth talking to anyway.

The evidence of what Maskhadov did or did not know is sketchy. The Russians claim he was behind the attack, although it seems more likely he was simply unaware of it. Certainly, in an interview to the Chechen news agency Chechenpress, published just the day before the crisis began, he denied the accusation that any of his fighters were linked to al-Qaida and stated "no one has carried out or planned acts of terror from the territory of Chechnya."

It may well be true that Maskhadov is unable to rein in his most radical fighters and negotiations with him will not bear any fruit. Yet it seems criminally irresponsible not to try. Almost 400,000 Chechens voted for him in 1997 in an election recognized by Russia. Moscow will never solve this problem unless it starts listening to ordinary Chechens. In a sense, beginning to talk is the easiest part. Chechnya and the parts of Russia associated with it -- the army and security establishment -- are so damaged that they cannot heal themselves unaided. The reconstruction work needed to do that can come only from the international community, which has thus far wanted to stay as far removed from the tragedy in Chechnya as it possibly can.

Thomas de Waal is the author, with Carlotta Gall, of "Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus." He contributed this comment to Monday's edition of The Wall Street Journal Europe.