October 29, 2002
the Hostages to Save Them?
when will the invasion begin, now that Vladimir Putin, president
of Russia, who not only demonstrably has weapons of mass destruction,
including hundreds of the nuclear weapons that are the only ones
worthy of the term, has used poison gas on his own people? Or do
such criteria not apply to permanent members of the UN Security
Council being courted by the Bush administration to support a tough-sounding
resolution against Saddam Hussein?
sounds a little flip, almost frivolous. It is difficult to imagine
that the Russian security forces actually intended to kill hostages
when they released some kind of incapacitating gas into the Sharikopodshipnik
Theater in Moscow – although they might well have calculated that
some of them would die in the encounter with the Chechnyan hostage-takers.
the Russians, at the very least, miscalculated badly and tragically
about what the effects of that gas would be on people who were generally
dehydrated and had been forced to stay virtually immobile for about
58 hours. Whether they deserve to be invaded or not – the analogy
does serve to point up the subjectivity of so much of the case for
invading Iraq, which is potentially useful – they deserve to be
held to account for incompetence, carelessness or worse.
CHANGES POLITICAL FALLOUT
or not that accounting will ever come, the political effect of the
incident will be considerably different than if the rescue operation
had been more like a success. If it had been successful, it would
undoubtedly have strengthened Russian President Vladimir Putin to
continue the campaign against the would-be breakaway province (which
resisted being part of Russia during Czarist days) with renewed
vigor and brutality. Now much of the anger that would have been
directed against the Chechen rebels will be deflected toward the
government as well.
appeared at first to be a well-executed strike against terrorists
holding some 800 Moscow theater-goers hostage has been transformed
into something different and possibly more tragic. An incapacitating
gas, still unidentified, that was pumped into the theater before
Russian special forces moved in, seems to have killed 116 of the
118 hostages who died in the rescue effort. And many of the hostages
are still in hospitals.
is just possible to understand how such a tragic series of mistakes
might have been made, and it seems unlikely that the Russian security
forces would have killed hostages intentionally. But to date Russian
officials have dealt with the incident in the manner of Russian
officials (communist, pre-communist and post-communist) since time
immemorial, with secretiveness and hostility toward the notion that
the public has anything resembling a right to know what their wise
leaders have been up to. If they want to avoid more serious doubts
festering about the competence of the regime they would do well
to summon up a good deal more candor than they have yet mustered.
ordinary circumstances you might expect at least a few putatively
democratic representatives of the vaunted "international community"
to summon up a bit of concern over the apparent gassing of innocent
Russian (and some foreign including perhaps two American) citizens.
But the international situation is seriously muddled by the current
U.N. Security Council debate over a resolution against Saddam Hussein’s
regime in Iraq.
As those who pay attention to such matters know, Russian President
Vladimir Putin has expressed reservations about such a resolution,
and the United States and Great Britain have been courting him.
They have little inclination to rile up the Kremlin’s leaders on
the eve of a possible vote.
U.S. and British spokespeople have been very understanding about
the Russian government’s actions. In different circumstances they
might have been more skeptical or critical.
also might be the case that the pending U.N. vote on Iraq emboldened
the Russian security forces to engage in an inherently risky operation
they might have thought through more carefully otherwise. Since
9/11 Putin has taken care to characterize the conflict in Russia
– with some justification but with more than a little disingenuousness
– as part of the ongoing conflict between civilized countries and
nasty Islamist terrorists.
has essentially silenced whatever elements in the Bush administration
might otherwise have been inclined to criticize Russia for the way
it is handling a secession movement that is surely more deeply rooted
and grounded in history than simply to be viewed as pawns of Osama
bin Laden. That feeling – that when it came to Chechnya and its
insurgents no violence or brutality or miscalculation was likely
to bring on American criticism – could well have gone into the decision
to move as quickly as the Russian security forces did.
case can be made, of course, that the Russian authorities had little
choice but to move when they did. The hostage-takers had made threats
and actually killed some people. It may be a long time before we
have a real idea of all the factors and calculations that went into
that having been said, of course, it was apparently an organized
band of Chechen terrorists and gunmen who stormed a theater playing
a popular musical.
leader, one Movsar Barayev, was said to be a nephew of Arbi Barayev,
a Chechen warlord killed by Russian forces in Chechnya in 2001.
Arbi Barayev was known as the "Terminator" because he
allegedly killed more than 170 people, including some Brits and
a new Zealander, back in 1998 – supposedly in return for funding
from bin Laden. So there is a level of ruthlessness and there are
connections with foreign terrorists.
hostage-takers immediately demanded the withdrawal of all Russian
forces from Chechnya, and threatened to kill hostages if the demand
was not met. They killed at least two hostages and badly wounded
two others. The attack came less than an hour before a deadline,
when the terrorists said they would kill 10 hostages each hour unless
their demands were met.
the moral responsibility for the bloodshed and death lies mainly
with the Chechnyan hostage-takers. This is so independently of the
question of whether Russia should have granted Chechnya independence
years ago, which is my position (though I have no desire to have
that opinion enforced by the U.S. government). Nonetheless, the
way the Russian government handled the rescue may deflect attention
from the Chechnyan issue.
Russian security forces had only 58 hours to decide what to do and
to come up with a plan. They almost certainly did not have all the
resources they would have liked. They acted on the basis of threats
from people who had demonstrated themselves to be ruthless.
so, they seem to have acted without calculating the full effects
of the gas – which might have been a combination improvised at the
last minute – and without an antidote available for medical personnel
to use on the affected hostages.
may be mitigating factors here. Some of the people with law enforcement
experience I have talked to about the matter emphasize the importance
of an agent that acts quickly, before it can be detected by odor,
color or taste. Using tear gas or pepper spray might have given
the hostage-takers time to blow themselves up, and the hostages
with them, or to spray bullets among the hostages, killing many.
Still, it seems almost indefensible to use a gas like that without
more knowledge of or forethought given to what the
effects would be on exhausted, dehydrated hostages.
officials will be criticized, with reason. Whether the criticism
will develop into something that could affect the course of Russian
activity in Chechnya – or even how they might vote on a Security
Council resolution – is almost impossible to know just yet.
difficult as it will be, they need to handle the tragedy with candor
and honesty – never a specialty of Russian officialdom under any
regime – beginning as soon as possible. Russian officials shy away
from candor almost as instinctively as Bush administration officials,
believing that sharing information with the mere public is a sign
of weakness or giving into populist effrontery. But the Russian
officials may soon have an incentive to change their ways, at least
a little bit.
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