THE MOSCOW theater siege ended much the way the Chechen terrorists seemed to hope it would -- with the deaths of scores of innocent civilians, along with their own. Yet this tragic outcome will not advance the cause that the self-described suicide squad claimed to espouse, that of forcing the withdrawal of Russian troops from their homeland. Instead, their abominable act has again demonstrated how terrorism discredits and destroys even legitimate political movements, corrupts civilian leaders and denies justice to people suffering oppression. Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim republic devastated by two wars in the past eight years, deserves a fair settlement with Moscow that would restore its right to self-rule. But the terrorists have all but eliminated the hope that any such solution will be achieved anytime soon, and they have probably condemned Chechnya's own civilians to a still greater measure of suffering.
The great political loser in last weekend's events was not Russian President Vladimir Putin but Aslan Maskhadov, a onetime civilian politician who was democratically elected president of Chechnya in 1997, when it enjoyed de facto independence. Since 1999, when Mr. Putin ordered a new invasion of Chechnya by 80,000 Russian troops, Mr. Maskhadov has been the titular head of the resistance; Russian liberals and Western governments have repeatedly urged Mr. Putin to open negotiations with him. Mr. Putin's stock reply since 9/11 has been that Mr. Maskhadov is a terrorist, no more worthy of dialogue than Osama bin Laden. In fact the differences between the two are considerable: Mr. Maskhadov is neither a murderer nor an Islamic extremist, and he fairly represents the aspirations of a nation that has been brutally subjugated by Russia.
Yet Mr. Maskhadov, like Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, has allowed a cause widely accepted as legitimate to become contaminated by terrorism. For years he resisted Chechen extremist groups, including some with ties to al Qaeda. But as the Chechen cause has grown more desperate, he has appeared to tacitly accept the terrorists. According to Russian reports, he reached an accord last June with Shamil Basayev, a warlord who shares al Qaeda's bloodthirsty ideology. Though he denied responsibility for the Moscow attack, Mr. Maskhadov did not explicitly condemn it; liberal Russian politicians said the attackers demanded that an end to the siege be brokered with Mr. Basayev and Mr. Maskhadov. In the aftermath of so many innocent deaths, those Russian peace advocates and their supporters abroad will find it hard to continue arguing that Mr. Maskhadov is a credible negotiating partner.
It is still true that Chechnya's war, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cannot be ended by military force. Mr. Putin's attempt to conflate an essentially ethnic and national struggle with the war on al Qaeda, even if accepted by the Bush administration, is no more likely to succeed than has the similar strategy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Any attempt by Mr. Putin to use the theater tragedy as an excuse to launch military attacks on neighbors, such as Georgia, must be resisted. Yet both Mr. Putin and Mr. Sharon have a right to defend their people against acts of terrorism; though the methods of Russian security forces at the theater and the government's Soviet-style information policy are open to question as the facts come in, responsibility for the deaths of more than 115 innocent people lies squarely with the Chechen attackers. As long as Chechen leaders fail to renounce terrorism, and to join in the battle against it, they -- like the Palestinians -- will find any political progress elusive, and their people will suffer all the more.