After special forces commandos stormed the Theater Na Dubrovke early Saturday morning, the authorities proclaimed the operation a complete success. They first announced that the enemy had been destroyed with no losses among the hostages or special forces. Then they mentioned 30 dead. By midday on Saturday the death toll had reached 67, and in the evening the Health Ministry officially admitted that “more than 90 people” had died, after which physicians were forbidden from talking to the press. On Sunday, the number of dead reached 117.
The crisis saw an unprecedented government crackdown on the media. The Moskovia television station was taken off the air after broadcasting an interview with a hostage who called for an end to the war in Chechnya. After being warned by the authorities, normally opposition-minded Ekho Moskvy radio toed the official line in its coverage of the hostage crisis. The Chechen web site Kavkaz.org was taken offline.
The authorities did in Moscow what they have been doing for more than three years in Chechnya: They blocked the flow of information, they lied and passed off defeat as victory. But what the federal government gets away with in a distant Caucasus republic didn’t work in Moscow with dozens of journalists and thousands of witnesses watching. The public was told that the raid was launched only after the gunmen began killing hostages.
But even law enforcement officials admitted that the raid had been planned in advance, and that they had intentionally taunted the gunmen with “leaks” about the upcoming attack in an attempt to keep the gunmen off-balance (and thereby goad them into starting a fight). It appears that the gunmen did open fire on the hostages, but only after the raid was already underway, when people panicked and some likely tried to escape.
The authorities took special pride in their plan to launch a gas attack in a closed building. They still have not let the public know what gas was used. The authorities’ reluctance to share any information with the doctors treating the former hostages isn’t hard to understand, however.
It was immediately suspected that they had used poisonous substances banned under international conventions — the very substances cited by the United States in justifying its plan to bomb Iraq. Most of the gunmen were quickly taken out of action by the gas attack, but not all, as it turned out. Some of them happened to be in other parts of the building, and they kept up resistance for about 40 minutes. During that time one or more of the Chechens could probably have rushed into the main auditorium and blown it up or opened fire on the hostages. But this didn’t happen.
The gunmen had not begun executing the hostages Saturday morning, and the raid on the theater led to massive casualties. So was it really necessary to storm the building? Yes, it was necessary — politically necessary. The authorities needed the raid and all the casualties in order to make it possible for them to continue the war in Chechnya, to contain the growing anti-war mood in society, and to demonstrate Vladimir Putin’s decisiveness and strength of will.
On the evening before the raid, the gunmen let it be known that they would free the hostages if the government made an unambiguous commitment to negotiations. If that commitment had been made, the people in the theater center could still be alive. But for Putin, such a declaration would have amounted to political suicide. Putin placed his political prospects above the lives of the hostages — a natural decision for a professional politician or bureaucrat.
The percentage of Russians supporting the war in Chechnya had been falling monthly, but the push for a peaceful solution had not developed into a popular anti-war movement. The hostage crisis changed this situation. Many people who used to criticize the war in private stepped up and made their views known. Relatives of the hostages formed an anti-war committee. This was not the result of “Stockholm Syndrome,” when victims identify with their captors, or an attempt to please the kidnappers. The morning after the raid, representatives of the anti-war committee affirmed their intention to continue protesting the war.
The authorities sensed a threat, not from the gunmen, but from society — the first real threat of Putin’s presidency. Urgent measures were needed, and they were taken. The crisis made everything clear. The current regime will never agree to peace under any circumstances. While the current president and his team are in power, Russia will be at war.