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Has Mr. Putin Survived His Test?

David Miller Online: Has Mr. Putin Survived His Test?

The hostage crisis at the Moscow theatre not only presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with the biggest test of his presidency but it has placed the issue of Chechnya firmly back on the Kremlin’s agenda. Mr. Putin has been forced to deal with Chechnya throughout his tenure as both President and Prime Minister and no other issue has dominated his time more than this. Chechnya is a recurring problem for Mr. Putin. The Russian military has been unable to defeat the rebels outright on the battlefield and the rebels themselves have shown that they can carry the war into the heart of the capital itself. The problem for Mr. Putin is that he has built his political career and reputation on the image that he is a man who takes decisive and uncompromising action. Hence, when he was faced with this latest test there was only one way in which he could react. The question is, did Mr. Putin pass?

When dealing with Chechnya, Russia says it is fighting against terrorism. Mr. Putin has already suggested that al-Qaeda was involved and the President will be using this claim to justify the assault. On the other hand, the Chechen rebels claimed that their action was part of their fight for independence. The Chechens have resisted Russian for centuries during which time they have built up a reputation as formidable fighting men. The break up of the Soviet Union has lifted the lid on this and other nationalist struggles and the decline in Russia’s military capabilities has meant that Moscow cannot deal with them as easily as they could in the past. Nor are they able to deal with them quietly anymore.

The media has shown so many images of the misery and destruction inflicted on Chechnya as well as the Russian defeats and withdrawals. These images remind us that 3,800 Russian soldiers have been killed and nearly 14,000 have been wounded while the rebel casualties are higher. There have been many reports of atrocities and both sides have acted with extreme brutality and viciousness and there have been incidents were foreigners have been the victims of such outrages. The Russians are losing an average of 125 soldiers per week and for all of Mr. Putin’s tough talk and posture the conflict shows no signs of ending.

This latest crisis has embarrassed the Russian government because it demonstrated that the rebels were able to smuggle explosives into Moscow along with a sizeable contingent of men. There will no doubt be questions raised over the effectiveness of the Russia’s internal security measures and intelligence capabilities. Moscow has been the target of bombing campaigns in the past that where blamed on the Chechen’s although their involvement in those previous attacks was never proven. It is possible that given the situation inside Chechnya, the Russians did not believe that they could mount an offensive on this scale but even if this was the case, they have been caught seriously off-guard.

The hostage taker’s demand that Russian troops were withdrawn from Chechnya was one that was never going to be met. It was doubtful that the rebels would have surrendered and the hostages released. Therefore the only realistic outcome was either the destruction of the theatre and killing of everyone inside or a Russian assault. Mr. Putin was placed under immediate and very intense pressure to act by his own public and he found himself under the spotlight of the international community as well. The crisis also reaffirmed the belief that the Chechnya situation was not under control as Mr. Putin had claimed.

Any support Mr. Putin was hoping to gain with his decisive action has certainly been eroded with the outcome of the assault. It is clear that the Russians used a chemical agent to try and overpower the rebels and knock them off balance before the troops entered the building. Reports have said that only two hostages died because of gunfire while over one hundred were killed due to exposure to the gas. Mr. Putin has gone on nationwide television to apologise and has asked for forgiveness but this will not stop the criticism being levelled at him. There is still no explanation as to what gas was used and relatives have been unable to find out any information as to the condition of those who survived. It is also clear that once the gas had been released the Russians did not provide antidotes to the hostages and even though there was less than a thirty percent casualty rate, this was a serious flaw in the military plan.

It is for these reasons that the Moscow theatre house siege will not be regarded as a success for Mr. Putin or the Russian military. In the final analysis, there was no alternative to the building being stormed by Special Forces troops but the manner in which it was undertaken raises serious questions about Russian planning and execution of such incidents as this. Had there been a sufficient amount of antidotes available then the death toll could have been lower and scenes of desperate relatives crowding outside the hospitals reinforce the impression of Russian secrecy and disinformation. This was a facet of Russian policy that was so heavily criticised after the sinking of the Kursk and a lesson Mr. Putin and his government have not learned. In the final analysis it would be difficult to say that Mr. Putin passed this test.

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