Some members of the Russian Parliament are demanding an inquiry into how Chechen rebels could take 763 people hostage in downtown Moscow, what gas the government used to disable the terrorists and why the Kremlin didn't make proper medical preparations beforehand. Vladimir Putin is equating the terrorist act with 9/11. Unlike the World Trade Center and Pentagon attackers, however, the Chechen terrorists had political demands: Stop the war. Stop the killing. Open peace talks.
Most Russians agree that there can be no military solution. Three years ago, many favored renewed conflict under a decisive new leader, Putin, but by this past summer support for Putin's war was hemorrhaging, despite the Kremlin-imposed media whitewash of the war's horrors. "The undeclared war in Chechnya has long since lost support of the majority of the Russian people–60% are for immediate cease-fire and negotiations with the rebels," wrote Ivan Rybkin, a former head of Russia's Security Council, in the Wall Street Journal. Days after the terrorist attack, polls showed that almost half still favored negotiations.
President Putin rejected negotiations with the hostage-takers, insisting he would not be "blackmailed" by terrorists. One can sympathize with that rationale. But questions remain: Among them, whether the possibility of negotiations had been fully exhausted; why the decision to use gas while concealing its nature and not taking adequate medical precautions; and why all the disabled terrorists were immediately executed rather than interrogated. And there can be no sympathy for Putin's talk of a major military response to the Moscow terror attack. Putin echoes George W. Bush's rhetoric about fighting international terrorism, but his words are a smokescreen hiding an escalation of Russia's futile, eight-year military effort in Chechnya.
The terror attack in Moscow has invited comparisons to past Chechen terror attacks, which have indeed been brutal. But at the same time, precious little has been said about the Russian zachistki, or "cleansing" campaigns, including the April 1995 massacre of more than 100 civilians in the village of Samashki. In fact, both Russians and Chechens are guilty of atrocities in a war that has killed tens of thousands. On the Russian side: disappearances, torture, murders, brutal "mopping up" operations and scorched-earth policies that have left thousands of Chechens homeless and their capital, Grozny, a bombed-out shell. And on the Chechen side: deadly mines, assassinations, kidnappings, the use of civilians as human shields–and now the attack in the heart of Moscow on hundreds of civilians.
In the end there can only be a political solution to this war. The best hope for accomplishing that would be for Russia to sit down across from Aslan Maskhadov, the popularly elected Chechen president. He has denounced the horror in Moscow and called, again, for unconditional peace talks. The Kremlin rejected his call, charging him with complicity in the terrorist act. But Maskhadov is virtually the only Chechen leader who is in a position to negotiate peace if the Kremlin showed a good-faith interest in it. If Russian and Chechen leaders don't begin negotiations soon, there may be worse terrorist acts: A moderate Chechen leader has recently warned that terrorists might try to seize a nuclear power plant.
For a political solution to succeed, leaders in Washington and Moscow must delink the issue of Chechnya from the global fight against terrorism. The Chechens are not Al Qaeda, and Putin must not be allowed to pretend they are. The only way to redeem the suffering of the victims of terror is by working for negotiations that will bring about peace.