Analysis: Putin unyielding

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

Russian President Vladimir Putin has, as expected, responded to the murder of the children in North Ossetia by declaring that there will be no surrender over Chechnya.

He did look rather chastened in his television address to the Russian people, and well he might.

He had just got back from a visit to the survivors and to the scene of the crime, where he will have experienced, as watching on television can never do, the reality of a policy which has not brought the security he promised.

But he gave no ground. And he did the two things he had to do.

He threw all the blame for the tragedy on the hostage-takers, thereby implying that he had fulfilled his promise to do nothing to harm the children.

In doing so, he made the predicted accusation that foreign terrorists were involved. "We are dealing with a direct intervention of international terror against Russia, with a total, cruel and all-powerful war," he said.

And he declared that there was no other way than his for dealing with Chechnya, thereby scotching any suggestion that a change of policy might be in prospect.


There was no talk of talk with the Chechen rebels.

Indeed he announced that security measures would be stepped up, with a shake-up in the security forces, better crisis management (in the expectation of further attacks presumably) and stricter border controls.

We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten
President Putin

He spoke almost nostalgically for the old days of tight Soviet border policing.

"Our country, which used to have the strongest defence system of its external borders, instantly became unprotected from either the West or the East," he lamented.

If there was any admission of failure, it was that he had not been tough enough.

"In general, we need to admit that we did not show an understanding of the complexities and dangers of the processes occurring in our own country and in the world. In any case, we couldn't adequately react...

"We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten," he declared.

Pointing to al-Qaeda

His address went more or less as predicted by Russia watchers, who say that Mr Putin is so wedded to his policy of refusing to give independence to Chechnya that he has little room to manoeuvre.

"He may use this to his advantage and come out with an aggressive defence of his position," said Dr Sean McGough of the Department of Politics at Birmingham University.

"This attack was a declaration of war against the Russian people. Each incident recently has increased in ferocity and this one attacked the thing most dear to the Russian people - the safety of their children," he told BBC News Online.

"President Putin will have a good defence if he can blame the hostage-takers. He might argue that with such people there can be no compromise and that they must be faced and defeated.

"To start with, he may try to root out terrorist elements in Russia itself, which could mean a more stringent security policy.

"He could use this as a reason for a clampdown. Internationally, he will probably present Russia's case more forcefully and claim that the Chechens have links with al-Qaeda."

Common cause

Certainly, the taking of children as hostages will have lost the Chechens rebels international sympathy.

It will help Russia's arguments. One of the features of the war in Chechnya has been the lack of pressure on Russia, which has managed to link its own crisis to the wider American-led war against al-Qaeda. President Putin has made common cause with President Bush.

If there is a renewed peace process, the radical elements will probably fight even harder to destroy it - there could be even more atrocities
Sean McGough
Birmingham University

Quickly, the White House expressed sympathy with Russia, calling the school siege "barbaric."

"Western leaders have pulled their punches on the way in which Russia has tried to pacify Chechnya partly because Putin has persuaded them he is engaged in the same war on terror as they are," said Archie Brown, Professor of Politics at Oxford University.

Mr Putin's defence needed to be good. He came to power and was re-elected on the promise that he would bring calm to Chechnya and security to the Russian people. He cannot claim to have done so.

Nor does the handling of the siege by the Russian security forces accord with his own image of cold efficiency.

Debate ahead

But leaders whose policies fail in the face of terrorism do not necessarily get punished. In common danger, people often rally to the leader. This could be said of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for example.

One option, which looks unlikely in the shock of the moment, might be for Russia to try to restart a dialogue with more moderate Chechen figures like Aslan Maskhadov, who has said that his forces were not involved in the school siege.

At various times in the past, he has hinted that he might moderate Chechnya's demands for independence if the Russians ended their military occupation.

But up to now, Mr Maskhadov has been dismissed by Mr Putin as just another terrorist.

"There will now probably be a long period of debate and discussion about Chechnya," said Mr McGough.

"The problem is that the Chechens fight among themselves and there is nobody who can speak for a majority. If there is a renewed peace process, the radical elements will probably fight even harder to destroy it. There could be even more atrocities.

"In the long run, the question of Russia simply withdrawing from Chechnya might come up, but it is too early for that and that would be the hardest thing for Putin to do since his own reputation would be at stake."

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