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Powell's tactful response was telling. "Our position is clear: This tragic conflict can be ended only through a political solution that respects both the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and the legitimate aspirations of the Chechen people." By stressing that Russian boundaries -- which still include Chechnya -- are inviolate, Powell seemed to be signaling that Grozny could secede only with Moscow's permission, and that the problem was an internal Russian affair and none of America's business.

While realpolitik arrangements similar to the one with Putin were concluded after 9/11 with various regional dictators, military strongmen and warlords deemed critical to the war on terror, the consequences of the White House seal of approval arguably have been most apparent in Russia. At home, Putin has imprisoned opponents, muzzled the media, promoted his former KGB colleagues -- the siloviki, or men of power -- to positions of influence, and expropriated property to reestablish the state's grip over key sectors of the economy. In neighboring Ukraine, he recently tried to foist a rigged presidential election on voters, and lashed out angrily at the West when the clumsy attempt failed. And in Chechnya, where the Kremlin has ensured that there are virtually no outside observers, Putin, by most accounts, has elevated the scale of violence as a growing number of insurgents are adopting terrorist tactics in retaliation.

Ilyas Akhmadov
Ilyas Akhmadov
Ilyas Akhmadov might look like a Washington wonk, but he's among Russia's most wanted fugitives. (Greg Miller)

But if the Chechen atrocity in Beslan was part of a strategy, it has backfired. Beslan has given a new legitimacy to Putin's harsh campaign against the separatists. Since the terror spree, Russia has scrapped the election of governors in its 89 provinces in favor of presidential appointments. A similarly unrepresentative overhaul of the parliament, also rationalized by the threat of terrorism, will henceforth give the Kremlin greater say over who sits in the Duma, Russia's lower house of representatives.

"It's a thinly disguised power grab," Starr charges.

For the Kremlin, however, perhaps the biggest boon of Beslan has been the opportunity to recast all Chechens as radicals and to claim the high moral ground in a conflict in which Russia has traditionally been the aggressor. "Russia's strategy has been to tar moderates and terrorists with the same brush," says Glen Howard of the Jamestown Foundation. "And this doesn't leave anyone left to negotiate with."

But then ever since the 19th century, as anyone who has read Tolstoy's and Pushkin's accounts of serving in the Caucasus can attest, the Kremlin has found it useful to have Chechnya as an internal enemy. It may be no accident that both invasions of Chechnya over the past decade have coincided with presidential election campaigns. The West said little when Yeltsin sent in the troops in late 1994. Five years later, Putin accented the run-up to his 2000 presidential bid by launching a second military campaign in Chechnya.

"The genesis of that war was very suspect," says Woolsey, echoing a view widely held in Washington and Moscow that the Kremlin itself may have been behind apartment-building bombings -- blamed on the Chechens -- that were used as a pretext to restart the fighting. These suspicions gained credence after it was disclosed that an individual caught planting explosives in a building basement by police in the southern Russian city of Ryazan turned out to be an agent of the renamed KGB. Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), as the domestic branch of the KGB has been rechristened, strongly denied any wrongdoing and said it had been conducting "a test."

A survivor of one of the bomb blasts who also pointed the finger at the Kremlin, Alyona Morozova, was granted political asylum in the United States in January after her Russian lawyer, Mikhail Trepashkin, was sentenced to four years in prison last year for revealing state secrets. He had been conducting an independent investigation into the 1999 bombings that also suggested Russia's security services were responsible.

IT WAS IN 1999, during the start of that second, more brutal Russian offensive on Grozny, that Akhmadov began his circuitous five-year journey from obscure separatist functionary to cause celebre in Washington.

Then the newly appointed foreign minister, he was among those chosen to travel abroad to sway foreign opinion about what was happening in Chechnya. He had no idea he would be gone for so long -- possibly forever -- or that he would become such a thorn in U.S.-Russian relations. At the time, simply getting out of Grozny was a challenge. Because Chechnya was not recognized as a sovereign state, its representatives could not travel on diplomatic documents -- they had to use Russian passports -- and there was precious little money in the depleted Chechen treasury to fund extended diplomatic missions. There was also the small matter of the Russian army laying siege to Grozny, shooting at anything that moved.

Akhmadov says he was handed $500 in expense money and a laptop computer, and was bundled into the back of an ambulance, which set out under the cover of darkness at 2 in the morning toward the Georgian border. "We had to get to the border before daybreak," he recalls, "because that's when Russian fighter planes resumed patrols." Crammed in the ambulance with a dozen other refugees, mostly women and children, Akhmadov felt helpless: "There was just a narrow slit to watch the sky for aircraft. But the noise from the ambulance engine masked the sound of rockets." Recognizing the pitch and whine of incoming ordnance could often save one's life. With enough experience, which most Chechens quickly acquired, says Akhmadov, you could predict more or less where the shells would land based on the noise they made in flight. But in the ambulance, he felt deaf and blind and completely exposed. Nor did it help that the treacherous mountain roads on which they traveled offered little room for maneuvering, or error; the steep passes and ravines were littered with smoldering automobile carcasses. At one point, Akhmadov says, a bus filled with women and children in front of the ambulance took a direct hit. It was obvious, he says, that there were no survivors. Akhmadov and his fellow passengers simply drove on.

As sunrise broke, they had to cover the last few miles to the border on foot. The plan for him had been to travel incognito as a refugee and to blend in with the crowd. One obstacle, however, remained: A raging mountain river had to be crossed, and the bridge was blown out. "Someone had felled a tree as a makeshift foot bridge," he recalls. "It was very unsteady, and we had to get all the children across it." After a few harrowing trips, however, his party got across safely. The Georgian border was just ahead, where the underground had arranged for someone to meet Akhmadov so he could begin his mission.

"All I had with me was a pair of jeans and $100, since I left most of the money with my wife," Akhmadov recalls. From the moment he crossed into Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, Akhmadov would become almost completely dependent on the goodwill of a network of international benefactors. Initially, the Chechen underground spirited him to Baku, in Azerbaijan, where thousands of Chechens had already taken refuge. A rich Chechen businessman bought him the suits he would wear while appearing before various European parliaments. Another provided the plane tickets needed to get there. Eventually, Akhmadov was being invited by Beltway insiders such as Frederick Starr to make the rounds in Washington.

Starr was impressed by Akhmadov's ability to reason with and charm his adversaries. Later, when Starr moderated secret negotiations in Switzerland in 2001 between Akhmadov and a delegation of Russian parliamentarians, he was astonished at how quickly they found common ground. "I had been worried that they would be at each other's throats," Starr recalls. "But they got on like old friends."

The ease with which Akhmadov conversed with his Russian adversaries is also partly what has made him appealing to former Cold Warriors in Washington. He is not some slogan-spouting radical with prayer beads, but rather is a product of the Soviet system with whom officials from both sides of the old superpower struggle can readily identify. And he is an especially effective negotiator with the Russians. His Russian is flawless and accent-free. He has the same cultural references as anyone who grew up in the U.S.S.R.; he's read the same books, was raised watching the same TV programs and movies. In fact he served in the same Soviet military units as some of the Russian officers now fighting in Chechnya. "See this man?" he said one afternoon, showing me his old scrapbook photo album. The snapshot showed a young Akhmadov and several other soldiers hamming it up in front of a jeep. "He's now a lieutenant colonel in the FSB in charge of intelligence in eastern Grozny. And this guy," he pointed to another fresh-faced conscript, "lives in that part of Grozny and is in the resistance. They get together for drinks when there is a lull in the fighting."

This sort of camaraderie across the trenches, like Basayev's wagers on Russian-Chechen soccer games during the first war, has become rare as the second campaign's spiraling brutality has embittered combatants on both sides. Akhmadov notes that this is making it more and more difficult for Chechens and Russians to sit at the same negotiating table. "Most young Chechens today make it a point of pride to no longer speak Russian. The only Russians these kids have ever met have been brutal occupiers who killed a family member or burned their village. All this next generation of Chechens knows about Russians is that you have to kill them before they kill you."

Akhmadov says he believes that Chechnya's only hope is a negotiated settlement. During the secret Swiss negotiations in 2001, Akhmadov proposed a novel first step toward reconciliation: a meeting between the mothers of slain Russian soldiers and the mothers of dead Chechen resistance fighters, chaired by Putin's wife. "Everyone thought this was a great idea," Starr recalls. "But the Kremlin killed it."

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