WASHINGTON, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- On Friday night, when the Chechen gunmen in the Moscow theater gave President Vladimir Putin a deadline of Saturday to give a commitment to end Russian military operations in their country, the Russian president faced two choices: give in and open negotiations, or take a dangerous gamble. He chose the gamble -- and it seems to have paid off.
As the third day of the crisis dawned in the paralyzed Russian capital special forces moved in on the theater. For two hours newsmen kept at a distance from the scene could hear gunfire and explosions. Then the Russian Interior Ministry announced that the occupation was over. Of the 70 or so men and women hostage-takers about 36 had been killed, others had been captured, even though -- more ominously -- a few had managed to escape.
Four hours after the rescue operation the authorities had still not produced a tally of casualties among the approximately 700 hostages, but according to some reports over a hundred members of the audience had been caught in the cross-fire and lost their lives, and scores of others had been injured.
Putin decided to act because the prospect of a series of hostage executions carried out by Chechen militants in his own capital was politically unacceptable. Many Russians view the fight against the breakaway Islamic republic as Putin's personal responsibility. After all, his promise of a quick and decisive end to the conflict in 2000 had got him elected president, and they would expect him to hang tough in this situation.
But the risks connected with a police action against the hostage-takers were enormous. The hostage-takers had mined the theater and threatened to destroy it if the Russians attempted to storm the building. When the Russians stormed the theater, however, there was no major explosion.
"We managed to save the theater from being blown up," Deputy Interior Mnister Vladimir Vasilyev announced Saturday, pointing to the squat bulk of the theater looming intact behind him.
The hostage-takers themselves were wired with explosives and vowed to blow themselves up rather than be taken prisoners. Considering the havoc individual Palestinian suicide bombers leave behind in a crowded Israeli bus or popular cafe, the combined impact of 70 suicide bombers would have been a major bloodbath. But again there was no indication that any of the Chechens had carried out on his or her threat.
A huge dose of luck and -- according to some Moscow analysts -- a skillfully conducted operation by elite Russian army special forces seemed on Saturday to have given Putin the outcome he was hoping for.
Why did the self-proclaimed martyrs prefer to die in the more mundane circumstances of a shootout? Skeptical Russian officials had said from the start that the Chechen militants' main objective was not to die for the Chechen cause but to focus international attention on it.
Putin's strong commitment to the U.S.-led war against international terrorism in the wake of 9/11 -- last year's terror attack on New York and Washington -- had yielded dividends for Moscow in stopping U.S. and international criticism of the Russian handling of the Chechen situation. During his election campaign, Republican candidate George W. Bush had called on Putin more than once to withdraw Russian troops from Chechnya.
After 9/11, Bush showed greater understanding of Putin's problems in dealing with Chechen separatists. After 9/11 the Russians could operate inside Chechnya without having to worry about charges of human rights violations from Washington and elsewhere.
In the past year the Russians portrayed Chechnya as a terrorist enclave. At the same time the Chechen guerrillas' links with Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization al Qaida -- real, though probably overstated -- further tarnished Chechnya's international image.
So the Russian officials are probably right to see the occupation of the theater as a desperate attempt to put their half-forgotten war
back in the world headlines.
On Friday, Red Cross negotiators apparently came close to securing the release of the 70 or so foreigners among the hostages, including Americans, Germans, and Britons. At the last minute, the Chechen militants refused to let the foreigners go partly -- observers said -- to continue to hold international attention, and to embarrass Putin.
The bonus for Putin was the reaction in Russia itself. The militants' attack is likely to harden attitudes towards the Chechens and strengthen Putin's hand in fighting separatism.
The crisis caused Putin to cancel his participation in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, Saturday but Moscow was where he had to be this week. Anyway, it rained in Mexico.