But soon after, the Kremlin announced its own unilateral political settlement. It would stage a referendum in spring 2003 to approve a Kremlin-drafted constitution, then hold a presidential election in the fall in which Putin's administrator, Akhmad Kadyrov, would presumably be ratified as leader. The idea was to turn over the conflict to loyal Chechens, a concept Putin advisers called "Chechenization."
Putin could have taken a different course. Several candidates with genuine followings put themselves forward to oppose Kadyrov, who commanded a militia accused of widespread torture and killings.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the Chechnya war is the fault of "weak leaders" in the 1990s.
(ITAR-Tass via Reuters)
Live, 11 a.m. ET: Michael McFaul, Hoover Fellow and associate professor of political science at Stanford University, discusses his article about how the Beslan school massacre illustrates the flawed policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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Saidullayev, the Chechen businessman, went to see Putin in the spring and came away convinced the president welcomed his candidacy. "He reassured me that the election was going to be honest," Saidullayev said. "He told me he knew that the Chechen people were supporting me, that the fighters of Chechnya respected me and that he knew my ideas were peaceful. We shook hands and we parted."
But after polls showed Saidullayev beating Kadyrov, a Putin aide came to Saidullayev to urge him to drop out. Saidullayev refused and within days was knocked off the ballot on supposed violations involving candidacy petitions. The other leading challenger, Aslakhanov, now Putin's Chechnya adviser, was lured out of the race with a Kremlin job.
"When he was talking to me, he actually meant what he said," Saidullayev said of Putin. "But later, for some reason, something changed."
Staying the Course
Kadyrov was elected in October 2003, and a brief lull in the conflict followed. But Putin's promises to rebuild what had been destroyed in Chechnya never materialized. Millions of dollars in reconstruction financing disappeared. Refugees complained that compensation was stolen by local officials. And Kadyrov's militia, run by his son Ramzan, a boxer, terrorized many residents.
Soon, the separatists turned almost exclusively to terrorism to wage their war, bombing a rock concert, a hospital, a bus stop and a subway station. The attacks were often carried out by female suicide bombers known as black widows. The campaign escalated in May, starting with a bomb in Grozny that killed Kadyrov and shattered Putin's Chechenization policy.
Putin made a surprise visit to Chechnya days later -- his first in three years -- and pronounced himself shocked at how "horrible" Grozny looked. Deprived of independent reporting on Chechnya by state-controlled television, he appeared to grow distrustful of what he was told.
A month after Kadyrov's assassination, guerrillas raided neighboring Ingushetia, killing 90 people. Putin again visited and noted that what he saw was different from what he was told in Moscow. He fired several generals.
Still, he did not veer from his basic policy. A new election to replace Kadyrov was called and Saidullayev was again knocked off the ballot in favor of a preferred candidate. Chechen suicide bombers struck both before and after the election, blowing up two airliners and detonating explosives outside a Moscow subway station.
As the toll has mounted, public opinion has turned sharply against Putin's policy. In August, 68 percent of respondents favored peace talks and 21 percent supported continuing the war, according to a survey by the independent Yuri Levada Analytical Center. In a poll after the Beslan attack, 84 percent of Moscow residents held Russian security services responsible for the spread of terrorism and more called it a consequence of the war in Chechnya (49 percent) than international terrorism (42 percent).
Having blamed Maskhadov, the separatist leader, for Beslan and having ruled out talks with him, the president has no obvious negotiating partner if he were to choose that route.
"There are some guys in the government who are in favor of talks with separatists, but who to talk with?" said Vitaly Naumkin, a leading scholar who has advised Putin.
And even if one could be found among the more moderate separatists, Putin would risk alienating the pro-Kremlin Chechens who are under the loose command of Kadyrov's son, Ramzan.
Even ardent Putin backers say the president has few options. "It's not about Putin," said Akhmar Zavgayev, who represents Chechnya in parliament. "He's already done everything that depends on him."
And so, after the twin airline crashes and the subway bombing, Putin promised no change in course but a continued pursuit of Chechen terrorists. "We shall fight them, jail them and destroy them," he said.
Russian news services carried the statement at 9 a.m. on Sept. 1, just as three vehicles pulled up to School No. 1 in Beslan, and heavily armed guerrillas stormed out to make a school full of children the latest victims in a war that does not end.