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||Stratfor Strategic Forecasting
24 October 2002
The ongoing hostage situation in Moscow has put Russian President Vladimir Putin in a lose-lose situation. Chechen militants are holding hundreds of politically valuable prisoners, demanding that Russia withdraw its forces from the secessionist region if the Kremlin wishes to avoid bloodshed. While a military solution to the standoff would be bloody, Putin can afford to risk the lives of the hostages more than he can afford to abandon Chechnya, which would leave an entire nation exposed to threats from Islamic militants in the former Soviet states.
When Chechen militants took an estimated 700 hostages at a Moscow theater Oct. 23, they presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with an enormous challenge. One day later, the militants threatened to blast the building, killing themselves and the hostages -- who include a number of wealthy Russians, foreigners and diplomats -- unless the Kremlin agrees to withdraw its military forces from secessionist Chechnya.
Putin's challenge is tough indeed. The question confronting him is: How can he resolve this extraordinary crisis while minimizing casualties and still prevail over the militants? On one hand, he cannot simply pull Russian forces out of Chechnya -- this would appear to many Russians to be a shameful defeat, and it would threaten the country's very security. Putin has built his reputation as a tough, resolute leader capable of defeating the Chechens. Despite controversial pro-Western policies, his popularity has remained high, largely because Russians believe he could protect them from Islamic extremists. Now, however, he appears to be in a no-win situation.
The hostage crisis puts Putin's political reputation and career on the line: It demonstrates that Islamic militants can attack Russia at its very heart: Moscow. Russia appears to be defenseless against a relatively small number of militants.
The president's choices are limited: Either he must capitulate to Chechen and international Islamists, or he must deal with them as decisively as Washington has sought to do since the Sept. 11 attacks.
At the moment, Putin seems lost. As of late Oct. 24, the populace still was waiting for him to address the nation regarding the hostage crisis. Stratfor sources within the Russian government have claimed that Putin and his closest advisers appear undecided and possibly even scared. The Kremlin has issued no actionable instructions to law enforcement agencies as of yet, although Putin has chaired several meetings of the Security Council and other bodies to discuss the situation.
For Putin, the fundamental problem is not that the government appears weak, but that it is weak. Corruption and bribery are common among low-wage government officials and law enforcement agencies, leaving the country vulnerable. In this instance, an estimated 50 Chechen militants armed with explosives, grenade-launchers and small arms somehow were able to cross the European part of Russia unnoticed en route to their current mission. The Russian government, along with its intelligence, counterintelligence and police structures, failed to prevent this attack.
Moreover, ethnic Chechen gangs are the most powerful crime syndicates in crime-ridden Russia. The Chechen mafia has extensive links with militants, funneling billions to separatists over the past decade, Russian intelligence sources say. Reports of Chechen mafiosi approaching politicians are frequent in the Russian media, and pravda.ru -- citing former military counterintelligence chief Alexander Zhardetsky -- reports that the syndicates are prominent within key industries, such as the construction and energy sectors.
In essence, Russia is home to a fifth column -- comprising the Chechen mafia, corrupt politicians and scores of businesses -- that significantly aids the movement of militants and weakens Putin's options in the current crisis.
As he attempts to resolve the hostage situation, Putin will have to convey his own determination to a confused and demoralized public and particularly to Russia's power structures. If he follows the model that the United States and Israel have used in dealing with Islamic militants -- which in this case would mean either storming the theater or letting the gunmen escape with their hostages and attacking them in the open -- then the citizens and the army surely would support him.
There are no easy solutions in this drama: Storming the theater will lead to hostage casualties -- and if there are many, then Putin will suffer politically. But for Moscow, and for the sake of Russia's security, this could bring a much smaller price than that of surrendering Chechnya.