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#4 - JRL 7005
Washington Times
January 5, 2003
Theater raid haunts Russia
By Anthony Lousi
UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL

MOSCOW The year 2002 will be remembered in Russia for one event that overshadowed all else, much as the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington blocked out every other event for Americans. That event was the hostage-taking at a Moscow theater in October.

When 41 Chechen militants stormed a theater in central Moscow, just a few miles from the Kremlin, taking more than 800 people hostage, they brought home to every Russian the fact that terrorism can strike anywhere, any time.

The hostage drama, called Russia's September 11 by many, presented President Vladimir Putin with the worst crisis imaginable, one that appeared to have a downside whichever solution he might take.

The hostage-takers, who had mined the theater building, made one demand: that the war in Chechnya, which Mr. Putin restarted in the fall of 1999, be brought to a close and that Russian federal forces withdraw from the separatist republic.

Mr. Putin made it clear that he would not negotiate with terrorists and ruled out removing Russian forces from Chechnya, which has been seeking independence from Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago. That left only the option to storm the theater and kill the hostage-takers, risking the lives of the hostages in the process.

In the end, this is exactly what happened as 129 hostages and most of the Chechens lost their lives, mostly as victims of a gas used to knock out everyone inside the building before a catastrophic explosion could be triggered.

The operation was at once praised as a masterstroke that saved the lives of 650 people and condemned as a typically botched Soviet-style operation in which innocent people were seen as expendable casualties.

Reports said many who could have survived with prompt medical attention died because there were few medical teams on hand to deal with the exodus of hostages after they were freed. Another factor contributing to the deaths was an inexplicable desire by the security services to keep the compound of the gas used in the operation secret, thus complicating treatment at the hospitals.

While officials lied about casualty figures and refused to answer questions regarding the gas, human rights organizations and international governments condemned the return of official silence not seen since the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster.

Mr. Putin's post-crisis approval rating soared, however, as the Russian leader had demonstrated strong will and a determination to wipe out terrorists rather than back down in the face of incredible odds.

Bolstered by the outcome of the Moscow operation, which was hailed as nothing less than a victory by much of the Russian media, Mr. Putin ruled out any negotiations with Chechen separatists and went on the offensive, demanding the extradition of Chechen leaders living abroad and pressuring neighboring Georgia to clamp down on Chechen rebel bases in the Pankisi Gorge, which borders Chechnya.

Mr. Putin also moved to dismantle Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia, a tiny Russian republic. The camps were an eyesore that had attracted attention from human rights organizations and European parliamentarians. Thousands of refugees, faced with no heat, power or water, are being forced to leave their tent camps and move back to Chechnya, where misery and unknown fates await them.

On the international front, Mr. Putin received support from President Bush, who toned down criticism of the war in Chechnya in return for Russia's support in the U.N. Security Council on a new, tough resolution on Iraq.

Mr. Bush also flew to Russia to shake hands with Mr. Putin after the NATO summit in Prague, where three Baltic states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were invited to join the military alliance, a move Russia had once called an unacceptable security threat.

Although Mr. Putin pushed hard to equate Chechen separatists with al Qaeda's terrorists in an international war on terrorism, he declined Washington's offers of involvement in a coalition against Moscow's old ally Baghdad and remained wary of the Bush administration's long-term intentions.

Feeling anger among some in the military over the growing presence of U.S. and NATO forces in Central Asia, where bases were established during the campaign against Afghanistan, and responding to domestic criticism that U.S. forces were using the war on terrorism as a pretext to establish a permanent regional base in southern Russia, Mr. Putin set up closer ties with Kyrgyzstan, where it will deploy attack jets and military transport aircraft.

With the relationship with Georgia strained over Tbilisi's purported support for the Chechen rebels, Mr. Putin has also sought a commitment from Armenia, Russia's only ally in the Transcaucasus, to build closer military ties with Russia.

In a year-end visit to China and India, Russia's main military customers and strategic partners, Mr. Putin called once again for the establishment of a multipolar world to balance Washington's growing role as the sole superpower.

Russian officials have stepped up the rhetoric in recent weeks, calling for a Moscow-Beijing-New Delhi axis that would be able to balance U.S. power in coming years, perhaps looking ahead to the possibility that the United States would one day gain control over Iraqi oil fields and change the geopolitical situation for good.

Mr. Putin met understanding in Beijing over concerns that North Korea possesses a nuclear arsenal, an unwelcome development that China in particular has been eager to reverse. Mr. Putin's condemnation of Islamic extremists in Kashmir, a veiled attack on Islamabad, was also met with joy in New Delhi.

Mr. Putin has another pragmatic reason to woo China and India: the lack of foreign investment in Russia. Having not won significant investment this year and facing stagnating economic growth figures, Mr. Putin has turned to China and India, appealing to the business elite in both countries to turn their attentions to lucrative investment possibilities in Russia.

On the brighter side, Russian oil exports continue to grow, and Moscow is projecting $70 billion in oil revenues by the end of this year. Mr. Putin needs it, as 2003 is when Russia must pay back more than $17 billion in debt and interest to international organizations. He must also ensure a jump in revenues from foreign investment to boost state coffers while maintaining the growing drain on the budget caused by the "black hole" that is present-day Chechnya

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