Vladimir Putin directed an angry question to Western visitors this week that world leaders are likely to glide past in the interests of diplomacy. That would be a mistake. The Russian president deserves a full and candid response, particularly from the Bush administration as the third anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches.
"Would you invite Osama bin Laden to the White House or to Brussels and hold talks with him and let him dictate what he wants?" Putin snapped, according to journalists and foreign policy analysts who were invited to his country residence outside Moscow on Monday night. He quickly added: "But you tell us that we should talk to everyone, including child-killers."
Putin clenched his fists as he delivered his remarks, noted Mary Dejevsky of London's Independent newspaper. Her account portrays Putin as offering an olive branch to Chechens -- in the form of parliamentary elections and greater "Chechenization" of local security forces -- before flashing his ire at the outsiders who urge him to seek a political solution to the bloody uprising on Russia's ragged southern fringe.
America's memories of September horror are too fresh for this nation not to sympathize with Russian emotions in the wake of the barbaric siege at School No. 1 in Beslan, the sabotage of two airliners and a suicide bombing in Moscow that have killed more than 400 people in two weeks.
Moreover, Putin's implied linking of the Chechen terrorists who planned these atrocities to al Qaeda and other Islamicist fanatics is not fanciful. Chechens play an inordinately important role in this loose network, especially in recruiting and spreading its ideological and physical poisons in Europe, according to French counterterrorism experts and other Europeans.
That is the ultimate political tragedy of the rebellion in Chechnya, which is no longer a struggle solely concerned with independence from Russia. Chechnya's indigenous political leaders have failed to prevent their campaign to escape Russian rule from being appropriated by the Islamic nihilists intent on destroying and humiliating "nonbelievers" everywhere.
But Putin misdirects his rage. His most urgent problem is not Western hypocrisy or incomprehension. The Bush administration has done little more than urge him, quietly and at carefully chosen moments, to distinguish between genuine Chechen nationalists and the terrorists -- that is, to put his full weight behind political steps similar to those he endorsed in Monday night's dacha discussion.
Most of Putin's rhetoric since the school massacre has cast Russia as standing alone in the war on terrorism, abandoned by a hypocritical West that does not understand that separatism will destroy his nation, whether it is sought by terrorists or politicians. There is a touch of the politics of paranoia in that rhetoric.
But Putin's sarcastic question forces a moment in which President Bush and European leaders need to be frank with him. A brutal Russian security policy has made Chechnya a destabilizing force in the war against Islamicist terrorism rather than the focus of global cooperation it could be.
The Russian leader's most urgent task is to deal effectively with the corrupt local police and military forces that cooperate with the terrorists. Then he should put forward a clear political path toward self-rule to encourage credible Chechen representatives to separate themselves from the terrorists. This does not mean talking to Shamil Basayev, the most extreme Chechen commander, any more than Bush could negotiate with bin Laden.
Putin must also give the Russian nation the sense of being involved in a bigger and more noble task than merely taking revenge on murdering Chechens and indulging ancient fears of national collapse. His administration must work to change the behavior of peaceful Chechens -- and of citizens throughout Russia -- by giving them more responsibility and liberty, not less.
Nations survive from the bottom up. Anti-guerrilla campaigns, learned commission studies or new Cabinet-level departments do not save countries in crisis. What saves them is social cohesion, and the awareness and common determination of citizens to protect their future. That provides them the ability to overcome the anger, hatred and fear that are terrorists' primary weapons.
That thought echoed in the words of another Russian this week, one who put out a statement on the Beslan massacre from a jail cell, where he is being held on fraud and tax evasion charges. "Hate can't be defeated by fury," said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man. "Inexorability, solidarity, mutual help and understanding -- here is the defense of our children. No special service can defend an indifferent people."