Russian forces seized control on Saturday of the Moscow theater where Chechen rebels had been holding hundreds of hostages after a dramatic gunfight in which dozens of hostages and most of the guerrillas were killed. MSNBC.com’s international editor, Preston Mendenhall, was on the scene and answered questions on the conclusion of the crisis.
MSNBC.com: The raid on the Moscow theater has been described as extremely bold. What is the significance of such a brazen move?
Mendenhall: This attack really brought the war in Chechnya onto the Kremlin’s doorstep. For many Muscovites, the decade-long war had stayed 1,500 miles away and they had never really felt threatened in any way. And Russians have felt cut off from what has been happening in Chechnya not only by distance, but also due to the Kremlin’s tight control of information coming out of that region. Still, Moscow keeps tens of thousands of troops in Chechnya, sustaining casualties on a daily basis. Around 80,000 civilians are also believed to have been killed in the conflict.
The war in Chechnya is also a situation over which President Vladimir Putin has very publicly proclaimed victory. He was elected at least partially on the platform of a hard-line toward Chechnya. His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had also openly proclaimed the situation in Chechnya under control. This attack throws those claims into obscurity.
MSNBC.com: How has the hostage crisis affected the people of Moscow? For ordinary Muscovites, this attack has instilled a sense of fear. They feel as if they have been violated. Across the city, cinemas and theaters that stage these types of musicals — which have been a relatively new phenomenon in Russia — have been almost entirely empty since the crisis began. People are scared to do things in public they normally would do to relax. It is also interesting that this happened at the same time as the Washington, D.C.-area sniper because it instilled much the same feelings of violation and vulnerability.
MSNBC.com: How will this hostage drama affect Russian politics and the war in Chechnya?
Mendenhall: It will be interesting to see what happens to Putin in the aftermath of this week’s attack. He was elected largely on the platform that his policy in Chechnya was working well but now he and the military establishment may have to reevaluate what they’re doing down there. Tactically, it is possible that Moscow could reexamine its procedures in Chechnya, perhaps look at what the United States has been doing in its war on terrorism, using special forces and maybe some bombing as well. There could be a shift in an effort to minimize both military and civilian casualties — which could help stem criticism at home.
MSNBC.com: How has the resolution of this week’s crisis compared to other hostage situations in Russia? Well, among the relatives of those inside, there had been great fear that Russian forces would treat this as it has previous situations. In the past, Moscow has seemed to use the guiding principle that the operation is a success as long as most of the hostage-takers are killed, regardless of civilian casualties. In January, 1996, for example, a group of Chechen rebels took 3,000 hostages at a hospital in neighboring Dagestan. The rebels released most of the hostages in return for safe passage back to Chechnya, but took about 100 as human shields. Along the way, Russian forces attacked the convoy, killing 78. Most of the rebels escaped.
As a result, relatives of those inside the theater this week feared that troops would do something similar, with little regard for those inside. They flooded the media and government officials with pleas against storming the theater. There were also sporadic anti-war protests outside the building during the standoff, though it was unclear if the guerillas had instructed their hostages to tell their relatives to stage such demonstrations, or if they were spontaneous.
MSNBC.com: Some Russian officials have claimed the theater raid was masterminded abroad, while some have said it was conceived and executed entirely by Chechen insurgents. What has the Kremlin’s stance been on whom it would ultimately hold responsible for the raid?
Mendenhall: It is difficult to say if there’s any validity to Putin’s claim that the plot was a foreign one, hatched abroad. Later, other Russian officials changed tack and said the former Chechnya president turned warlord, Aslan Maskhadov, had been the mastermind. In previous terrorist incidents against Russian civilians, the Kremlin has been quick to finger Chechen insurgents as the perpetrators, such as the 1999 bombings of several Moscow apartment buildings, in which hundreds were killed. However, as then, the proof has frequently been slow to materialize, if it ever does. Are we going to get definitive evidence, and when? Those questions remain unclear.
Mendenhall is on assignment in Moscow. He is based in London.