The attack on Nalchik, capital of the north Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, was a carefully planned guerrilla operation carried out in broad daylight in a big city. The estimates of the fighters' numbers have varied from 50 to 600 (as of Sunday, official figures and news service accounts cited more than 130 people dead, including 94 attackers, and 15 arrested), but the important fact is that they were able to penetrate the city unnoticed and unhampered, thus demonstrating a clear advantage over numerically far superior federal forces in planning, intelligence and organization.

Vladimir Putin inherited the problem of Chechnya when he came to power. He pledged to make Russia safer, but during his tenure, terrorism and subversive activity have steadily expanded. His launching of the second atrocious war in Chechnya soon after he took office as prime minister in 1999 led to a vicious circle of guerrilla attacks, followed by retaliation by federal forces, which in turn brought out increasing numbers of young Chechen men seeking revenge. Later Putin opted for a Chechenization of the crisis and ended up with a pro-Moscow Chechen leader with a reputation as a butcher; his armed followers are reported to use abductions, hostage-taking and torture against their enemies. This man was granted the highest state award and was personally befriended by Putin, who received him in the Kremlin.

Terrorist attacks under Putin have included the Moscow theater siege in the fall of 2002, in which more than 800 people were taken hostage by Chechen terrorists; a botched rescue operation left 120 hostages dead. After that, terrorist attacks followed in a quickening succession that climaxed in the terrible tragedy at the Beslan schoolhouse in northern Ossetia in September 2004. The terrorism problem was no longer confined to Chechnya; it had spread all over the north Caucasus and was making plain the need for a major rethinking of policy.

But instead of rethinking things, Putin seized on the Beslan tragedy as an excuse to launch a political crackdown and to further curb democratic practices. The information about the situation in the north Caucasus, as well as anti-terrorist operations, became even more tightly filtered by state-controlled TV networks. The investigation of Beslan, like that of the theater siege before it, has been much more about helping high-ranking officials avoid accountability than about a careful probe of the government's policy flaws.

When Putin took over as Russia's president, Kabardino-Balkaria was quiet. But Putin's use of brutal force in Chechnya has backfired, producing growing numbers of revenge-seekers. Further centralization of power has led to deeper problems of the kind inherent in a heavily bureaucratic system: poor performance, lack of accountability, failure to coordinate efforts because each official seeks first and foremost to avoid responsibility at any cost. A local leader with an independent source of authority is regarded with suspicion -- loyalty to the Kremlin is valued above all. This breeds incompetence and powerlessness among local officials.

Putin and those around him routinely attribute violent attacks in the north Caucasus republics to international terrorism. In fact, what is in common to all these predominantly Muslim regions is the abominable corruption of the local elites, awful social conditions and disenfranchised populations that become easy prey for radical underground groups.

In addition, each of those territories has its own problem. For instance, in Dagestan, where there is a complicated entanglement of dozens of ethnic groups, the balance among clans is cracking, leading to intense feuding. As a result, some 100 subversive attacks and shootouts have occurred there over the past 10 months. In Kabardino-Balkaria, one of the causes of trouble appears to be a fierce crackdown on Muslim believers; the closure of most mosques and brutal police treatment of those suspected of ties with Islamists have pushed young men to organize against the police.

So far the government's social policy has been largely limited to pouring more money into the troubled regions -- money that mostly ends up in the pockets of the corrupt.

Rather than masterminding a strategy to address these problems, Putin has allowed them to build; he blamed terrorism in the north Caucasus on evil outside forces seeking to weaken Russia because they regard it as a "threat that needs to be eliminated."

Back in the mid-1990s, when the first Chechen war began, there was talk of a nightmarish scenario in which the nations of the Caucasus would join the Chechen rebels in their secessionist cause. This threat was never realized and still does not seem imminent, but the specter of a Caucasus war is closer today than it was in the Russia that Putin inherited.

The Kremlin is hardly unaware of the gravity of the north Caucasus problem. One year ago Putin put one of his most efficient men in charge of this troubled region. But even if good decisions are made, a huge hurdle will remain: the irresponsibility and inefficiency of Putin's bureaucracy. Taking that on is a task Putin is not ready for.

Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.

Russian special forces troops throw a smoke grenade into a store where Islamic militants were holding hostages Friday during a series of attacks in Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkaria.