The apartment felt like a safe house. The curtains were drawn. Someone else's family portraits hung on the walls, and a stranger's books lined the shelves. Other than a small framed photograph of the sons he had not seen in nearly three years, Ilyas Akhmadov hadn't bothered to unpack in the two weeks that he'd been there. His meager belongings stood near the door, ready for a hasty exit.

The 44-year-old fugitive Chechen rebel leader had made more than a few hurried departures on his way to becoming one of Russia's most wanted men, and he had been almost constantly on the move since fellow insurgents smuggled him out of war-torn Grozny in 1999. But on the day intermediaries arranged for us to first meet last fall, Akhmadov seemed anxious not to leave the temporary sanctuary offered by this borrowed two-bedroom apartment.

"Will you have another coffee?" he asked shyly in Russian. It was his fifth and my fourth, and the air had grown thick from countless cigarettes. As he spoke of Chechnya's two-century struggle for independence, smoke swirled around his spiky gray mustache, and, in the dark, caffeinated atmosphere, he looked momentarily like the sinister image of the jihadist mastermind he is accused of being. "I'm a little afraid to go outside," he finally confessed. "Someone might recognize me."

Staying out of the spotlight hasn't been easy for Akhmadov, who served briefly as foreign minister of Chechnya -- an internal Russian republic in the Caucasus Mountains that is slightly larger than Connecticut -- when the territory's 1 million mostly Muslim inhabitants tried to break away from Moscow during the 1990s. Since the Kremlin launched its most recent offensive against Chechen separatists last year, following the deadly September siege of an elementary school in Beslan, in southern Russia, Akhmadov has been the object of U.N. resolutions and antiterror rallies. Thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow last fall to protest the Beslan tragedy, which claimed more than 300 lives, and many of the demonstrators carried banners calling Akhmadov a child murderer. The Russian press portrayed him as a cold-blooded killer. And just a few days before my visit, CNN had broadcast his picture for the entire world to see. Sooner or later, Akhmadov worried, someone was bound to spot him on the street and make the connection. The wrong connection, he said.

Akhmadov's story might be just another shadowy tale from the global war on terror, if not for one important twist. The apartment he was holed up in was not in some remote former Soviet republic or extremist Islamic haven. It was smack in the middle of Washington, next to the National Zoo. He was here legally, as a newly minted political refugee -- and if he was hiding, it was more or less in plain sight. American taxpayers, in fact, were about to start paying his salary at a congressionally funded think tank.

How is this possible? Well, it doesn't hurt that Akhmadov enjoys the patronage of a group of very senior Washington luminaries. His backers include two former secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright and Alexander Haig; a former defense secretary, Frank Carlucci; a former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski; and some of the biggest names in elected politics, from Ted Kennedy on one side of the Senate aisle to John McCain on the other.

Akhmadov, according to his supporters, is hardly the bloodthirsty radical that Russia claims. "I found him someone whose life was dedicated to peace, not terrorism," Albright assured then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in a 2003 letter endorsing Akhmadov's request for political asylum. "I have met with Mr. Akhmadov on three occasions," Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) petitioned then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in a similar recommendation. "I have found him to be a proponent of peace and human rights in Chechnya."

Moscow, not surprisingly, has a very different view. "He's a terrorist, there is no doubt about it," says Aleksander Lukashevich, a senior political counselor at the Russian Embassy in Washington. "We have proof . . . Our foreign minister has made Russia's position on extradition quite clear."

The Russians are not the only ones in Washington questioning Akhmadov's innocence. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), and the chairman of Judiciary's immigration, border security and claims subcommittee, John Hostettler (R-Ind.), have jointly requested that the attorney general's office review Akhmadov's asylum ruling. "If the United States had evidence that Mr. Akhmadov was involved in terrorist activities," they wrote in a letter last September to Ashcroft, "it is unclear why he was not barred from asylum as a terrorist and as a danger to the security of our nation."

Thus far, Akhmadov's backers have carried the day. But the sheer persistence of his supporters raises its own set of questions. Why would some of this country's eldest statesmen risk damaging their reputations, not to mention alienating a key international ally, on someone wanted in connection with terrorism?

And why, at a time of bitter party divisions, would liberals and conservatives find common cause defending an obscure Chechen refugee whose presence on U.S. soil has sparked demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and infuriated the Kremlin?

"How would Americans feel if Russia offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden?" demanded, the nationalist online reincarnation of the propaganda organ of the Communist Party. The tensions, not surprisingly, have spilled over to the diplomatic front, where Russian officials have been barely able to contain their outrage. "Harboring terrorists, their henchmen and sponsors undermines the unity and mutual trust of parties to the antiterrorist front," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Washington in an emotional speech before the U.N. General Assembly last fall. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin recently weighed in on the matter, accusing the United States of hypocrisy. "We cannot have double standards while fighting terrorism," he said during a December visit to India, "and it cannot be used as a geopolitical game."

Indeed, a game does appear to be afoot in Washington over an issue that goes well beyond the conflict in Chechnya. It is a bipartisan push from outside the administration to call attention to Russia's rollback of democracy under Putin. The effort has gained momentum, as evidenced by the growing chorus of voices calling on President Bush to honor his inaugural address pledge to confront repression and to take the Russian leader to task.

"Russia, under Putin, is either already a fascist state, or close to becoming one," says former CIA director James Woolsey. "And it's time we acknowledge that." Woolsey, along with the neoconservatives William Kristol and Francis Fukuyama, Democratic mainstay Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and 95 other U.S and European signatories recently published an open letter calling for a review of policies toward Russia. "Western leaders continue to embrace President Putin in the face of growing evidence" that Russia is spiraling toward dictatorship, the 100 wrote. The West, they further warned, "must recognize that our current strategy toward Russia is failing."

In this light, the effort by a coalition of old Cold Warriors to keep a frightened Chechen refugee out of Russia's reach takes on a whole new dimension, as a point on the sharp end of a wedge forming between Washington and Moscow that could widen in the near future.

TWO WEEKS HAD PASSED since the CNN broadcast introduced Akhmadov to American viewers, and he was visibly less anxious. He had not been waylaid by angry mobs and was venturing out again, suggesting we meet at an Irish pub on Connecticut Avenue. But his newfound confidence had limits. "I'm sorry, but would you mind if I sit there?" He pointed to a bench against the wall. "I don't like to leave myself exposed with my back to the door."

With his runner's build, jeans, short graying hair and pressed, plaid shirt of the sort sold in the L.L. Bean catalogue, Akhmadov blended into the afternoon crowd. Still, it's easy to see why he's looking over his shoulder. Russia has sent hit squads after exiled Chechen officials. Two weeks ago, former Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov was killed in a Russian special forces operation. Last summer two Russian agents in Qatar were convicted of assassinating a top Chechen rebel there. And, in October, a suspicious fire badly damaged the home of Akhmed Zakayev, another prominent exile, in London. British police said the blaze was almost certainly the work of arsonists. Though it's unlikely Moscow would try a stunt like that in Washington, Akhmadov is taking seriously Putin's vow last fall to hunt down and "neutralize" Chechen terrorists wherever they hide."It's very convenient for Putin to call us all terrorists," said Akhmadov, sipping a Samuel Adams ale. "That way he does not have to negotiate with us, and he can continue killing the Chechen people at will."

Akhmadov fidgeted with his frothy stein while our burgers arrived. He was surprisingly particular about his beer. It had to be Sam Adams, and it had to be draft, not bottled. "You don't need to write that," he fretted. "I don't know how it would go over back home."

By back home, of course, he meant Chechnya's capital, Grozny, though it's unlikely he can ever set foot there again. He was worried that some factions of the Chechen resistance might react badly to news that their unofficial representative in America consumes alcohol. Most Chechens are only nominally Muslim, thanks to 70 years of Soviet-enforced atheism and centuries of cultural isolation. But a more firebrand form of fundamentalism has taken root in some quarters of the underground, which has fallen under the sway of al Qaeda-type radicals from the Middle East who came to Chechnya in the 1990s to help fight the Russians and preach jihad. Unfortunately for Akhmadov, the head of Chechnya's deadliest jihadist movement is his former friend and field commander, Shamil Basayev, the man who in an Internet posting asserted responsibility for killing more than 300 people, most of them schoolchildren, in Beslan. A hero of Chechnya's war of independence, a former deputy prime minister and in many ways Akhmadov's mentor, Basayev has split from the mainstream resistance and started routinely targeting Russians.

"With Beslan," said Akhmadov, who was in the United States at the time and, like many Chechen leaders, condemns terrorism, "Basayev cast a death sentence on all of Chechnya and any hope of a negotiated settlement. He has dug our national grave, and foolishly played right into Putin's hands."

Basayev, who is in hiding somewhere in the Caucasus region, is unavailable to join the debate, but what Akhmadov says about him is a common refrain among those in Washington who follow developments in the Caucasus for a living. "The Russians are trying to treat Chechen separatism through the prism of 9/11 and terror rather than as a nationalist movement that has been defying Kremlin rule for 200 years," explains Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank with roots in the Cold War that has long taken a critical view of Russia and is among Akhmadov's most ardent backers. "Unfortunately, the strategy has been very successful."

Akhmadov took a long, frustrated swig of his beer. He developed an affinity for the Massachusetts ale during his days in Boston, where the immigration courts spent months grilling him on his relationship with Basayev. That the two were once close, Akhmadov does not deny.

"I remember the first time I met him," he said. It was in 1992, a heady time. Akhmadov had gotten his master's degree in political science after serving five years in the Soviet strategic nuclear rocket forces, had done a stint teaching high school and was looking to get involved in the democratic movements sweeping the former Soviet bloc. One after another, the 15 republics of the U.S.S.R. had declared independence, and Chechnya had followed suit. But unlike Ukraine, the Baltic states or Kazakhstan, Chechnya was an internal republic of the new Russian Federation. Grozny had declared independence not from the Soviet Union but from Russia proper, a dangerous precedent that could pave the way for any of the federation's 88 other provinces to split. While the separatist movement was alarming in Moscow, there was too much chaos in the wake of the Soviet collapse to do anything about it at the time.

Basayev had been among the thousands of people on the barricades with Boris Yeltsin in 1991 defending the parliament building against hard-line Communist coup-plotters. At 27, he was a few years younger than Akhmadov, and seemed almost terminally shy at their first meeting, Akhmadov recalled. "He was addressing a group of soldiers. Big, tough guys. His voice was barely a whisper, and he never looked up from the ground when he spoke. But all these huge guys hung on his every word. I was amazed by his quiet authority, the obvious respect these fighters had for him."

The reason for that respect quickly became apparent when the first Chechen war started in late 1994. Yeltsin, who by then had called out the tanks to put down a parliamentary revolt the year before, was contemplating a run at a second term as president in the 1996 election. Trailing badly at the polls, with only single-digit support, he launched what his advisers assured him would be a brief and popular campaign to return Chechnya to the Russian fold. A short, victorious war, as his advisers described the offensive, would restore Yeltsin's standing with the voting public. Akhmadov was in Moscow when he heard state television read a telegram from a pro-Kremlin faction in Chechnya asking Yeltsin to reinstate constitutional order in the breakaway republic. He says he knew instantly a war had begun: "In 1979, state television had broadcast an almost identical message for help from Afghanistan. So it meant only one thing."

Akhmadov rushed home and signed up as a foot soldier in a unit Basayev was organizing to defend the outskirts of Grozny. "I found my old [Red Army] uniform and borrowed a revolver from a neighbor." The gun only had seven rounds of ammunition, but Akhmadov supplemented his meager arsenal with two hand grenades, borrowed from another neighbor. Ironically, his old Soviet army-issue fatigues almost cost him his life. On his way to link up with one of Basayev's ragtag battalions, Akhmadov suddenly found himself under intense machine-gun fire. "I hit the ground, and bullets went right between my arms and legs," he laughed. "I was furious. The guy firing at me was a Chechen. When he emptied his clip, I shouted, 'You idiot, I'm one of yours.' 'Me, idiot?' he yelled back. 'You're the one going around dressed like a Russian.'"

Basayev, meanwhile, was quickly proving himself an able commander. From the war's first skirmish, in which Russian tank battalions masqueraded as pro-Kremlin Chechen forces, Basayev displayed cunning and courage. "We were terrified," Akhmadov recalled. "But Basayev told us not to worry, that tanks only make good targets for RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades, a favorite weapon of insurgents]. Well, we routed the offensive, and captured 60 Russian tank officers."

From there, Basayev's reputation as a daring field commander only grew. "Everyone wanted to be in his battalion. He was a master tactician and had the lowest casualty rates. It was astonishing. He remembered the name of every single soldier under his command, and knew their strengths and weaknesses."

Basayev, Akhmadov recalled, never invoked religion as a rallying cry in the early days of the war. "We had foreigners, mostly Arab veterans of Afghanistan, who came to join the fight and preach jihad," Akhmadov remembered. "But Basayev treated them with contempt and kept his distance. He used to make jokes about the fundamentalists. He called them blockheads."

If Basayev had made an impression on Akhmadov, Akhmadov must have also favorably impressed his commander, because Basayev promoted him out of the ranks and appointed him his aide. Later, Basayev introduced him to Maskhadov, a rebel commander who would be elected Chechen president in 1997 after forcing Moscow to sign a humiliating cease-fire. Eventually Maskhadov would appoint Akhmadov his foreign minister.

"What about Budyonnovsk?" I asked. A pained expression formed on Akhmadov's narrow, intense features. "Yes," he acknowledged, after a few seconds' pause. "That's where Basayev first crossed the line."

Budyonnovsk was the site of a 1995 raid, ostensibly targeting a forward Russian helicopter base 100 miles north of the Chechen border. Basayev and a group of 150 heavily armed commandos, according to the Chechen version of the story, were repelled from the base and chased to a nearby hospital, where the commandos took more than 1,000 hostages in a weeklong standoff. Using the patients and staff as human shields, the Chechen version goes, Basayev was able to return safely to Chechnya, though more than 100 Russian hostages died when Russian forces tried unsuccessfully to storm the hospital.

Moscow has a different version of the events, asserting that the whole enterprise was intended as a terror tactic, that the hospital was always the intended target and that the Russian hostages were executed by the Chechen rebels, and not the victims of Russian friendly fire. Akhmadov says he had been hospitalized with a leg injury during the Budyonnovsk siege and was not privy to its planning or execution. But he remembers being troubled by the use of civilians. "This is the sort of thing the Russians did, intentionally target noncombatants." As soon as he had convalesced, he sought out Basayev. "I asked what the truth was," he recalls. "And he was very evasive." Basayev had not wanted to discuss the operational details, and Akhmadov said he had let the matter drop out of respect for the man who had defended Grozny on so many occasions. Akhmadov now concedes that he did not grasp the raid's full implications. "It was war -- we had stray dogs eating corpses in Grozny, and different rules seemed to apply. You, too, in America," he added, "are learning this in Iraq." With the benefit of hindsight, he said, "I think [Basayev] realized that even if he had failed to take out the attack helicopters, he had nonetheless scored a huge psychological victory. All of Russia watched while the Kremlin was powerless to stop him. I think the success of Budyonnovsk started him thinking like a terrorist."

But Basayev was still a hero to most Chechens, including Akhmadov. After the August 1996 Russian withdrawal, President Maskhadov named Basayev deputy prime minister. "Maskhadov needed to unify the country," said Akhmadov. Chechnya, at the time, was in complete chaos. Much like Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat, the tiny enclave quickly degenerated into a lawless chasm of feuding clans. There was no economy to speak of.

Bandits and kidnappers seemed to be running the place, and basic services such as water and electricity had been obliterated. "One of the biggest problems of war is what to do with the combatants afterward," said Akhmadov. "Basayev was too popular to be left out of the new government."

Because there were virtually no state institutions, it fell on the former commanders to care for their former soldiers. Basayev doled out money for medicine and food that he received from rich Chechens abroad. Apparently, his welfare net extended to playing matchmaker, Akhmadov recalled. "Basayev said we all needed to get married and have children to replace the dead." Akhmadov balked at the idea of starting a family in such unstable times. But Basayev was adamant, and Chechnya had a long tradition of arranged marriages. "He told me I had three weeks to find a wife, or he'd find one for me." An introduction was arranged, and Akhmadov wed Malika, a young dark-haired relative of one of Basayev's best fighters. Though they were from different clans -- Akhmadov is descended from mountain dwellers; Malika's people are from the plains -- the two hit it off. As a wedding gift, Basayev helped find the couple an apartment that had not been bombed out. For a while, Akhmadov continued to work for Basayev, answering his correspondence at the prime minister's office. "He would get letters from all over Russia: retirees begging him to interfere on their behalf so that they could get their pensions on time; soldiers wanting to join him; even some of his former hostages wrote," asking him to return to Budyonnovsk to set the town's corrupt mayor straight.

All the while, though, Akhmadov said, Basayev was continuing to change. "He was increasingly closed as a person, and distrustful. He used to have a good sense of humor. I remember once during the war, he tried to arrange a [soccer] match with a senior Rus-sian officer. 'If my men win,' he said, 'you give us sniper scopes and ammunition.' 'What do I get if we win?' asked the Russian. 'You get to go home alive,' answered Basayev."

But the bravado that had once marked Basayev as such a charismatic leader was no longer on display. He began to withdraw from the public, quit smoking and cut out coffee. "He started reading all these religious texts," Akhmadov said. Basayev's Islamic conversion was noted by others as well. A predecessor of Akhmadov's as foreign minister, Shamil Beno, also a close friend of Basayev's, told a Post reporter: "He started moving from freedom for Chechnya to freedom for the whole Arab world. He changed from a Chechen patriot into an Islamic globalist."

Soon, said Akhmadov, Basayev was spouting Islamic slogans, teaching himself to read Arabic and praying five times a day. He began to break with Maskhadov on fundamental issues, such as continuing negotiations with Moscow, and claimed he was now receiving guidance from a higher authority. "In council debates Basayev started quoting the Koran, becoming very dogmatic." He had taken a new name and honorific, Abdullah Shamil Abu Idris, amir of the Rijalis-Salichin diversionary regiment of the Chechen shahids, or martyrs.

It was a bit much for Akhmadov, and the two quietly parted ways. There was no blowout or dramatic scene; Akhmadov simply went to work at the nascent Chechen foreign ministry while Basayev resigned from the government. But if Basayev was distancing himself from the mainstream Chechen leadership (and vice versa), he was not entirely retreating from public view. In 1999, he and Amir Khattab, a Saudi holy warrior and veteran of al Qaeda's Afghan training camps, launched a high-profile incursion into neighboring Russian Dagestan to try to topple the secular authorities there. Moscow reacted with predictable fury at the botched attempt to spread an Islamic revolt in the greater Caucasus. Soon afterward, a rash of mysterious apartment bombings rocked Russia. Putin, a former KGB officer whom Yeltsin had made head of domestic intelligence and his anointed successor, quickly pinned the blame on Chechen extremists and began mobilizing for war.

The war drums were already beating when Akhmadov says he last saw Basayev, in late 1999. It was a chance encounter on the street, and Akhmadov, who was foreign minister by then, barely recognized his old comrade in arms. "He was a different person; he had a strange, glassy look in his eye. 'Well,' he told me. 'I guess you are going to have your work cut out for you.'"

Akhmadov, however, was in no mood for jokes and adopted a more confrontational tone with his former mentor. "I asked Basayev point-blank if he knew anything about the apartment bombings," Akhmadov recalled, "and he swore that he did not." But Russian tanks were already underway. This time, Putin vowed, there would be no quarter given, no humiliating retreat.

AS WE SAT AT THE IRISH PUB, Akhmadov's cell phone rang with maddening regularity. For someone who had been in Washington for only a short time, he certainly seemed popular -- or at least in demand. The phone, like the loaner apartment, the three suits he owned, his legal defense and the funds he has lived on for the past five years, was a gift from well-wishers, many of whom display an almost maternal zeal to shelter and protect him. Some of Akhmadov's backers initially may have adopted his cause for political reasons, but most seem to have grown quite fond of him in the process. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that one of the happiest days of my life was when I called Ilyas to tell him that he would be able to stay in America," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, who, for the record, is my uncle, and is not someone prone to excessive flights of emotion. (While I was unaware of my uncle's involvement with Akhmadov until after I began reporting this article, sharing a last name with him did raise hackles at the Russian Embassy as to my objectivity.)

What would happen, I asked Akhmadov between calls on his cell, if the United States ever relented to Russia's requests for extradition? "You'd read that I hanged myself in jail or had a heart attack," he answered, running a finger over his throat in a slashing motion. For a moment we sat silently, contemplating this unhappy scenario. Akhmadov's face brightened, though, as soon as his cell phone chirped. It was Malika, calling from Sweden. She lives there thanks to the personal intervention of Ruud Lubbers, who, as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, arranged for her to get out of hiding in Azerbaijan, and later for Akhmadov's youngest son, Cherse, to undergo surgery for a skeletal deformity commonly known as clubfoot. "That's been the hardest part," said Akhmadov. "Being apart from my family." He has yet to meet 2-year-old Cherse, who like his two older brothers, Orz and Borz, now speaks Swedish. "I'm just a strange voice on the telephone to him," Akhmadov sighed. "Increasingly, that's the case for my other boys as well."

The long-distance relationship will likely continue. Despite efforts of influential supporters such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), it could take years for the red tape to clear on Malika's application to be reunited with Akhmadov. "His courageous statements have subjected him and his family to persecution and reprisals," Kennedy petitioned Ridge in 2003. "Denying refugee status leaves them all vulnerable to harm."

For now, Akhmadov cannot risk traveling to Sweden to see Malika and his sons, because he would almost certainly be arrested. (The United States has no extradition treaty with Russia as a consequence of the Cold War, but Sweden and other European nations do. So, Moscow could legally demand he be handed over.) Still, Akhmadov counts himself lucky that his kids are safely out of the Russians' reach. "Forty thousand children have died in Chechnya," he said. "The Russians have a policy to kill every male."

Russia vehemently denies this charge, and officials in Moscow say Chechen insurgents are every bit as ruthless as Russian forces are accused of being. Independent watchdog groups have found human rights abuses and atrocities by both sides -- including Chechen strikes against such Russian civilian targets as a packed Moscow theater, the Moscow subway and passenger airplanes. But the fact that the war has been fought amid a civilian population in Chechnya has guaranteed that the suffering has been distributed unequally. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that Russian forces often make little distinction between civilians and combatants when encountering men of fighting age. "A significant percentage of the male population between the ages of 15 and 65 has been liquidated," notes U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a former head of the National Security Agency, who has also written testimonials vouching for Akhmadov.

While no one knows precisely how many people have died in Chechnya as a result of the war over the past decade -- estimates range from the tens of thousands to several hundred thousand, depending on whom you ask -- there is a consensus that the conflict has became far more lethal under Putin's leadership. "At this point, it's basically a war of ethnic survival for the Chechen people," says S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, a longtime observer of the region who is one of the foremost authorities on Chechnya in Washington. "They've probably lost a quarter of the population."

That much of this suffering has occurred with minimal comment from the Bush administration has inflamed passions in some corners of Washington. "This is a black mark on the administration's record of human rights," says Odom. "Our present policy gives Russia license to be even more brutal toward the Chechens."

The policy to which Odom refers stems from a strategic partnership the White House struck with the Kremlin in the months following 9/11. Under the agreement, Moscow would permit the United States to deploy military forces within its sphere of influence, in former dominions such as Uzbekistan -- which borders Afghanistan -- and Georgia, to stage counterterror operations. In exchange, say observers such as Starr and Holbrooke, Washington agreed to include Chechen extremists on its global terrorist blacklist, effectively allowing Russia to do whatever it pleased in the breakaway province.

Alexander Haig acknowledged the primacy of the strategic partnership while lobbying on Akhmadov's behalf. "I certainly understand the benefits of the new relationship with President Putin," he wrote to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in late 2002. "Nevertheless there could be no justification for permitting these benefits to overshadow our fundamental obligation to provide sanctuary to Mr. Akhmadov."

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.

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."

Then, shortly after the negotiations broke down, Washington got word that Akhmadov's life was in danger. "A message was passed on to him by outside channels that he could no longer stay in Baku," says the Jamestown Foundation's Howard. "That he would probably be handed over to the Russians." Akhmadov, his U.S. supporters urged, should seek sanctuary in America. He had enough friends in high places in Washington to all but guarantee him a fair hearing with U.S. immigration judges. His 2002 application for political asylum should have been a slam dunk. But then Russian prosecutors and the Moscow branch of the multinational police organization Interpol notified the U.S. Embassy that Akhmadov was wanted for terrorism. "We have information that I. Akhmadov has ties with international terrorist organizations and is engaged in resolving matters of financing and material-technical support of gang units," the demarche read.

Specifically, Akhmadov was being charged with organizing terrorist training camps, and leading 2,000 armed insurgents, along with Basayev and Khattab, in the 1999 Dagestani incursion. Akhmadov testified at his immigration hearings that he had been in Moscow at the time meeting with Western officials. As evidence against him, Russian authorities produced affidavits from two Chechen prisoners of war who said they saw Akhmadov on Chechen television calling for the creation of a greater Islamic state in the Caucasus.

"Do you know how the Russians treat Chechen prisoners of war?" Akhmadov asks. "[The two prisoners] would have sworn that they saw me with Osama bin Laden himself if the Russians had told them to." The documentation supporting the charges sent to the Department of Homeland Security did not include a tape of the alleged television broadcast.

To those who know Akhmadov, the charges seem preposterous. "Having had him live under my roof for over a year, I can tell you it was absurd, laughable," says Nicholas Daniloff, an old Russia hand who met Akhmadov at a 2002 Harvard conference, soon after Akhmadov applied for political refugee status. Daniloff, a retired foreign correspondent, took Akhmadov into his Boston home when he realized he had no means of support, and later got him a summer job doing manual labor in Vermont. "I know a thing or two about getting caught in the middle of Great Power politics," Daniloff says. In 1986, as the Moscow correspondent for U.S News & World Report magazine, he was arrested by the KGB and charged as a CIA spy. "It was tit-for-tat. The FBI had just nabbed a Soviet agent in New York, and the KGB needed to find someone they could trade for him."

In response to Akhmadov's asylum application, Russia demanded his immediate extradition in 2003. Suddenly an immigration case that likely would have been resolved with one or two hearings in Boston was being kicked up to Washington, where it would languish for two years. Fortunately for Akhmadov, another benefactor, Max Kampelman, a former chief arms negotiator for Ronald Reagan and a counselor to the State Department, arranged for the white-shoe legal firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson to represent him free of charge. Douglas Baruch, a partner, landed the case. "The evidence against [Akhmadov] was obviously fabricated, in a very slipshod and amateurish manner," says Baruch. Leonard Shapiro, the immigration judge handling Akhmadov's hearing, apparently felt the same way, dismissing the charges for lack of evidence. (In an almost identical case in Britain, where Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev was accused by Russian authorities of 13 counts of murder and hostage-taking, a judge also dismissed the allegations. "I am satisfied," ruled British Judge Timothy Workman, "that it is more likely than not that the motivation of the government of the Russian Federation was and is to exclude Mr. Zakayev from continuing to take part in the peace process and to discredit him as a moderate.") "My concern," Baruch recalls, "was that the delay in the final decision was for political reasons, for the Bush administration not to offend the Russians."

In July 2004, however, after running up legal fees that (if he had had to pay them) would have set him back $250,000, Akhmadov recieved the final decision. He could stay in America.

IT WAS ONE PIECE of bad news for close U.S.-Russian ties in a cascading series of ill omens. The 100-signatory open letter calling for an end to the appeasement of Putin followed several months later, on September 28. In late December, Freedom House, a New York-based bipartisan foundation that monitors democracies across the globe, downgraded Russia to its Not Free classification:

"Russia's step backwards into the Not Free category is the culmination of a growing trend under President Putin," warned Freedom House's executive director, Jennifer Windsor, in the December report, "to . . . a dangerous and disturbing drift toward authoritarianism."

That same month Colin Powell criticized Moscow for meddling in Ukraine's elections, and the Los Angeles Times reported that the White House was rethinking its strategic partnership with the Kremlin and had begun "a broad review of its Russia policy that could lead to a more confrontational approach toward Moscow over its treatment of neighboring countries and its own citizens."

Though White House spokesman Scott McClellan immediately denied that any policy review was being contemplated, Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of state, conceded last month that Russia's crackdowns on dissent "make it more difficult to pursue a full and deep relationship."Just how difficult was apparent in last month's Bush-Putin summit in Slovakia. At times testy and awkward, the talks had none of the easy bantering and camaraderie that has marked past encounters between the men. President Bush chided President Putin for backsliding on democracy, but so gingerly and briefly that the "tweak" reprimand, as it became known, fell far short of the dramatic gesture critics in Washington had been calling for. Putin, for his part, made it clear that the White House, with its Iraqi campaign and torture scandals, was in no position to lecture anyone on inalienable rights. Still, the agreements signed showed that the two countries will continue to do business together. Bush won Russia's cooperation on a series of new measures to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction that ranged from better tracking of sales of small surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down civilian airliners to keeping a tighter lid on fissionable nuclear materials. Once again, the critics in Washington groused, Putin had shrewdly played the terror trump card to win Russia an extension on its strategic-partnership status.

In the run-up to the summit, I met with Akhmadov a final time. It had been five months since our first furtive encounter, and the change in Akhmadov was remarkable. He was cheerful and brimming with confidence when I dropped by his eighth-floor office at the National Endowment for Democracy.

With his somber suit, dark tie and desk full of position papers, he looked the picture of the Washington policy wonk. With his days of dodging bullets and diplomatic fire from Moscow largely behind him, Akhmadov seemed to be settling in nicely to the quiet, scholarly routine provided by his Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship. He had his own apartment now and an ambitiously efficient assistant to do his research, and he was clearly enjoying giving speeches on Chechnya, hosting academic luncheons and publishing the odd opinion piece on the Chechen conflict.

"My situation is a little more stable," he said, as we rode the elevator down for a cigarette break. "I guess I'm getting used to the idea that I will be staying in America. I'm glad," he added, "that people here are beginning to see Putin for what he really is." Indeed, the cooling of relations between Washington and Moscow certainly has not hurt Akhmadov's cause or credibility, and he could not resist a small, satisfied smile as he spoke.

His cell phone, I couldn't help but notice, still rang with frustrating regularity. If anything, Akhmadov seemed to have become even more popular, and in demand. This time it was his brother on the line, calling from exile in Baku. "I still really miss my family," he said, after exchanging a few words with his brother in an odd mix of Chechen and Russian argot.

Akhmadov said he planned to devote the rest of his life to trying to find a peaceful resolution to the Chechen-Russian conflict. But, he conceded, he was not very hopeful. "The situation now is in the hands of radicals and hard-liners, and I fear for Chechnya's future."

Whatever the future holds for Ilyas Akhmadov, he has certainly come a long way from seven months ago, when he worked as a farmhand in Vermont. "The farmer had no idea who I was until the last day," Akhmadov smiled. "But he says I can come back next summer to bale hay if Washington doesn't work out."

Matthew Brzezinski's latest book is Fortress America: On the Front Lines of Homeland Security. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m. at