THE violent Russian response yesterday to a violent venture by hostage-holding Chechen rebels was a surprise to almost no one.
But it might have been unnecessary, observers say, if Russia were still negotiating with leaders in the separatist southern region.
The artillery barrage the Russians loosed upon the Chechen commandos and roughly 100 hostages contrasted sharply to a similar incident last June, when another group of Chechen commandos seized hostages in a southern Russian city.
Then, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin personally negotiated with the leader of the raid, Shamil Basayev, who became a hero among Chechen rebels.
This time, the Russians gave the Chechens a deadline of Sunday for giving up their hostages, extended it through one harrowing night of helicopter flyovers and flare-shooting, then yesterday set about leveling the town the rebels have occupied.
Some Russians say Moscow should have never have treated the first group of commandos so softly last June. But those more familiar with Chechens see the entire incident as the fallout of broken-down talks between Russians and former Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Mr. Dudayev and other rebels still control the mountainous areas of Chechnya.
If Russians were still talking with Dudayev and his representatives, ''we would have no such tragedy just now,'' says Issa Kostoyev, a prominent member of Russia's upper house of parliament. Mr. Kostoyev is from Ingushetia, a Russian republic next to Chechnya.
After the first hostage incident last June at the Russian town of Budennovsk, Russian officials opened talks with Chechen rebels, arriving at an ineffectual military agreement July 30. But talks continued into the fall - until the Russians announced that Chechnya would elect a new ''head'' of the republic on Dec. 17 - signaling they intended to displace Dudayev.
It still is not too late for Russians and Chechens to reopen dialogue, says President Ruslan Aushev of the republic of Ingushetia, but without the stereotyping of ''bandits'' that helped derail talks before.
Russians have characterized much of the action of Chechen rebels as criminal, not political. And Dudayev's Chechnya was indeed a lawless place fraught with clan-based mafia activity. But observers stress that the rebels who ventured into Dagestan last week are terrorists, more in the former mode of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or the Irish Republican Army (IRA) than the Cali cartel of cocaine traders.
''These are acts of terrorism,'' says Alexander Iskandarian, director of the Moscow Center for Caucasian Research, ''not simply criminality. These guys are kamikaze.'' They are men who have lost close family members to Russia's attack on Chechnya last year, and they have accumulated much grief and anger.
A deadly crackdown by Russian forces will not discourage future raids, he says. Criminals can be deterred by countermeasures that raise their costs, but not such desperate rebels, says Mr. Iskandarian. ''The tragic story of Kizlyar [the town where the current hostage crisis began] began with the end of negotiations in Chechnya,'' he adds, noting that Israel eventually opened talks with the PLO and the British with the IRA.
The episode began Jan. 9 when Salman Raduyev, an in-law to Dudayev, led a couple hundred men to Kizlyar and seized a couple thousand hostages. The commandos reportedly killed two of the hostages before releasing most of them and heading toward Chechnya. Russian troops stopped them, however, in the town of Pervomaiskoye. There, the Chechens dug in and reportedly scattered their hostages as the Russians laid siege. Yesterday, the Russians launched a massive artillery attack.