Three years of political stability under President Vladimir Putin crumbled abruptly this week after nearly 50 heavily armed Chechen rebels seized a central Moscow theater and threatened to blow it up with as many as 700 hostages inside unless Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya within a week.
For Russians, Wednesday night's attack has brought the faraway and largely forgotten Chechnya conflict crashing onto center stage. The long, brutal counterinsurgency operation in Chechnya has been sparsely covered by Russian media.
But all major Russian TV stations have been covering the Moscow hostage drama around the clock, airing constant interviews and discussions with experts, and hence providing the most sweeping public debate about the war in almost three years.
Most dramatically, real-time cellphone calls from hostages inside the theater have played on Russian radio and TV, imparting a sharp and tragic edge to the discussion.
"The Chechens are starting to get impatient with us. They say, 'Your government is doing nothing to help you,' " sobbed hostage Maria Shkolnikova, who called the independent Echo Moskvi radio station on her cellphone yesterday afternoon. "We want to know: Where is Putin? Has he spoken? If our troops are not withdrawn from Chechnya soon, they say they'll start shooting us."
However the drama plays out, experts fear the long-term political consequences will be extremely negative for Russia's fragile democracy and political stability. "I think our Chechen policy will be greatly toughened after this," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, a former Kremlin aide and chair of the independent Reforma think tank in Moscow. "After all, were the Americans interested in appeasing Osama bin Laden after Sept. 11?"
For Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer who came to power pledging to get tough on Chechen terrorism after a series of devastating apartment bombs killed 300 Russians in the Autumn of 1999, the attack is a potentially disastrous political challenge.
Three years ago he launched Russia's second war to quell Chechen separatism, and handily won subsequent presidential elections on the strength of the Russian military victories that followed. But the conflict has dragged on, killing an average of three federal soldiers daily in the embattled republic.
Polls show Russians growing exhausted with the war. "This terrible event in Moscow shows that we have not succeeded in containing the war within the borders of Chechnya," says Sergei Karaganov, head of the pro-Kremlin Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. "This war has been very closely associated with Putin's name, and he must be seen bringing this situation quickly under control or he may lose badly from it."
The crisis began late Wednesday when the highly organized detachment of Chechen rebels seized the Palace of Culture on Melnikova Street in southeast Moscow, where the popular patriotic musical "Nord-Ost" was being staged. The attackers, wearing balaclavas and thick wads of explosive around their waists, fired shots and ordered everyone to be seated. The attackers released about 150 children, pregnant women, and Muslims, before planting booby traps around the 1,000-seat theater's doors and windows.
Efforts to gain release of some 65 foreigners, including two Americans, were stalled Thursday afternoon. The body of a woman was taken out of the theater yesterday, though details as to the cause of her death were unclear.
A Chechen rebel-sponsored website claimed responsibility for the raid and said it was under the command of Movsar Barayev, a Chechen warlord whose uncle, Arbi Barayev was killed fighting Russian troops last year.
"This is an almost impossible situation for our security forces," says Maxim Pyadushkin, deputy head of the independent Center for Strategic and Technological Analysis in Moscow. "They are operating in the heart of a metropolis, with little room to maneuver. The eyes of the world are upon them. One has the impression that these terrorists are ready to be martyrs, to blow themselves up with the hostages if the police try to move in."
Chechen rebels have resorted to mass hostage taking in the past, most spectacularly in 1995 when warlord Shamil Basayev seized hundreds of people in a hospital in Budyonnovsk in the south. One hundred civilians died during a botched attempt by Russian security forces to storm the building.
The following year another warlord, Salman Raduyev, took several hundred hostages in Kizlyar, a town in the republic of Dagestan, which abuts Chechnya, and managed to bring scores of them back to Chechnya despite being shadowed and bombarded by Russian security forces.
Both episodes humiliated the Kremlin and led to a collapse of public support for the war effort. "One has the impression that nothing has been learned after Budyonnovsk," Arkady Baskayev, Russian military commandant in the Chechen capital Grozny during the first Chechen war in 1995, told Echo Moskvi radio. "How on earth could it happen that a fully equipped detachment of Chechen rebels entered the heart of Moscow and seized a large building full of people?"
Among the possible fallout to this hostage crisis is a sharp escalation of ethnic tensions in diverse Russia, especially treatment of the 100,000-strong Chechen diaspora in Moscow. Since 1999, local Chechens have been subjected to special security measures, such as fingerprinting, and human rights organizations have reported numerous cases of Chechens being beaten and robbed by Moscow police.
"This is likely to antagonize interethnic relations...." says Pavel Ivanov, an expert with the Institute of National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. "I think we must fear the worst consequences from this shock."
International implications of the hostage shock are so far unclear, but Russian experts say the situation may make Russia more cooperative with the tough US position, in the midst of a crucial UN Security Council debate on how to deal with Iraq. "Our relations with the US are likely to improve as a result of this," says Yury Kryshin, president of the official Military History Research Association. "A sense of solidarity with Americans will grow, and this will certainly influence our position on Iraq."