The broken and burned bodies of children had just been pulled from the wreckage of a small-town school. All Russia was in mourning. And President Vladimir Putin was quietly furious.
Over tea and cakes at his country retreat, he kept a group of visitors past midnight last week, intent on making them understand why the long-running war in Chechnya had triggered the bloodbath in nearby Beslan. The war was not his fault, he said, but the failure of "weak leaders" in the 1990s and mistakes that "I would not have made."
"No one," he added insistently, "can blame us for inflexibility with the people of Chechnya."
For Putin, Chechnya has become a trap he cannot escape. In 1999, he promised Russians a two-week war that would crush the separatist enemy. Instead, he has given them an endless struggle that haunts his presidency, a guerrilla conflict generating a wave of terrorism that has killed about 450 people in the last month and 1,000 over two years. In private, according to people who have spoken with him, the normally cool former KGB officer rails in frustration at his inability to halt the violence and responds with seething anger to those who question his approach.
While he portrays his policy as flexible, a review of the last five years shows that Putin never really wavered from the tough, no-compromise course he set in 1999 as prime minister when he vowed to "wipe them out in the outhouse." Every time he flirted with new approaches, according to interviews with politicians, analysts and presidential advisers, Putin would turn back to the same formula.
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Beslan, some advisers consider it time for a frank reassessment, an admission that the conflict appears to be spreading across the volatile North Caucasus region.
"We must change our approach to the policy in the North Caucasus," Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Putin's top adviser on Chechnya, said in an interview. "The terrorists learn from the mistakes we make."
Yet Putin appears to have few, if any, obvious options left. Like President Bush, he is fighting a shadowy enemy that has eluded pursuers for years. But unlike Bush, Putin faces foes who are mostly citizens of his country and who have turned to terrorism in a struggle rooted in nationalist aspirations and centuries of repression. After Putin spoke to a stunned, grieving nation a week ago, aides acknowledged he had no concrete solutions. "Nobody in the world has found a way to fight terrorism effectively 100 percent," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov. "Nobody."
The path from Putin's ascension five years ago last month to the massacre in Beslan was marked with potential turning points. He toyed with negotiations with separatist leaders, only to abandon them. He vowed to end human rights abuses of Chechen civilians, only to fail to follow through. He promised genuine democratic institutions in Chechnya, only to allow his officials to rig two presidential elections.
"He got on the rail from the very beginning and he's been taking the railroad all the way down here," said Dmitri Oreshkin, director of the Mercator Group, a Moscow analytical organization. "He might give you the impression of a person who's trying to change it. It looks like he feels pain when people talk about the Beslan crisis as much as when they talk about the Chechen crisis. In reality, he never really tried to revisit his policy."
"Unfortunately, the same mistake was made again and again and again," said Malik Saidullayev, a Chechen businessman who was twice prevented from running for regional president by the Kremlin. "Russia kept choosing the same option -- force. Force cannot work."
The story of how Beslan happened also reflects what former Kremlin adviser Marat Gelman called "the end of politics" in Putin's Russia. While the war festered in the south, Putin succeeded in eliminating meaningful political dissent in Moscow. Now polls show most Russians favor peace talks over war, yet no effective opposition remains to push the views into public dialogue.
"There is no political debate in this country and this is the key problem," said Grigory Yavlinsky, an early critic of the Chechen war whose pro-Western democratic party, Yabloko, was ousted from parliament in elections last year. "The problem is, the authorities have no ear. They not only don't listen, they don't hear any voices. And the people feel themselves in absolute despair because they're not represented."
Power Over Finesse
The day after the Beslan standoff culminated in a bloody battle that left hundreds of hostages dead, Putin went on the air to address the nation. For a moment, he seemed to acknowledge that his policy had failed. But then he concluded he simply had not been tough enough.
"We need to admit that we did not fully understand the complexity and the dangers of the processes at work in our own country and in the world," he said. "In any case, we proved unable to react adequately. We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten."
Chechnya has defied and bewildered Russian leaders going back to the 19th-century czars who struggled to pacify the rugged, mountainous, largely Muslim region. In 1944, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis and deported the entire population to Kazakhstan. Their return in 1957 did not settle the matter, and in 1994, then-President Boris Yeltsin launched a two-year war to prevent Chechnya from peeling off from the new post-Soviet Russia.
As prime minister, Putin renewed the war in 1999 after rebel leader Shamil Basayev led an invasion of neighboring Dagestan and several apartment buildings were blown up in terrorist attacks blamed on Chechens. From the beginning, Putin chose power over finesse, bombarding the capital of Grozny with more ordnance than any European city had taken since World War II, leaving it in ruins.
As early as the fall of that year, Yavlinsky of the Yabloko party and others urged Putin to seek negotiations to avoid all-out war, but Putin would talk only with Chechens loyal to him. "I had this conversation with him many, many times," Yavlinsky recalled. "He would say that he has his own strategy. He would say, 'We are for negotiations.' I was saying, 'It's necessary to negotiate with the people who are your enemies, not your own puppets.' "
In February 2000, just after Yeltsin resigned and Putin became acting president, he went to see leading Chechnya specialists at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Sergei Arutyunov, a scholar who was present, recalled talking for more than an hour about the region and advising the new leader to soften his rhetoric about Islam and consider granting Chechnya significant autonomy within Russia.
"Putin was quite attentive," Arutyunov said. "It seemed that in March and April he followed some of our recommendations. But then everything returned to its normal circles."
Another potential turning point came after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Putin took advantage of the moment to demand that Chechens lay down their arms and cut any ties to al Qaeda. At the same time, he quietly opened the door to negotiations with leaders of the separatist government of Aslan Maskhadov.
Within weeks, Maskhadov's envoy, Akhmed Zakayev, flew to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport and met in with Putin's representative, Gen. Viktor Kazantsev.
"In three hours I didn't hear a single proposal to end the war," Zakayev recalled. "We made our own proposal" to restore Maskhadov's government in exchange for an end of hostilities. Kazantsev said they would talk more and Zakayev flew out. He never heard back from the Russians.
A Unilateral Settlement
By October 2002, Putin's army had won the war militarily in Chechnya, through tactics that included the destruction of entire villages and mass round-ups of people suspected of separatist sentiments. But the enemy took the war to a new battlefield. In the heart of Moscow, a band of guerrillas seized a theater full of ordinary Russians. The standoff ended when Russian commandos pumped a mystery gas into the air ducts that killed 129 hostages.
Putin offered a defiant response. He blamed the attack on Basayev, the rebel leader, and categorically ruled out peace talks with any separatists. He linked the theater seizure to international terrorism and threatened military strikes against countries harboring terrorists.
Then, as now, the president was furious. A few weeks after the siege, a French journalist asked about his refusal to hold peace talks. Putin responded by inviting the reporter to Moscow for a circumcision. "I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way that nothing grows back," he snapped.
Not long after, Chechen politicians presented the Kremlin with a plan to introduce self-governance to the region. Local representatives would be elected in villages and towns, then gather to write a new constitution. The plan, its authors said, would deprive the Maskhadov resistance of legitimacy and bring about enough autonomy to satisfy the population.
"They listened to me very well. Then they took our materials from us," recalled Shamil Beno, one of the Chechens.
But soon after, the Kremlin announced its own unilateral political settlement. It would stage a referendum in spring 2003 to approve a Kremlin-drafted constitution, then hold a presidential election in the fall in which Putin's administrator, Akhmad Kadyrov, would presumably be ratified as leader. The idea was to turn over the conflict to loyal Chechens, a concept Putin advisers called "Chechenization."
Putin could have taken a different course. Several candidates with genuine followings put themselves forward to oppose Kadyrov, who commanded a militia accused of widespread torture and killings.
Saidullayev, the Chechen businessman, went to see Putin in the spring and came away convinced the president welcomed his candidacy. "He reassured me that the election was going to be honest," Saidullayev said. "He told me he knew that the Chechen people were supporting me, that the fighters of Chechnya respected me and that he knew my ideas were peaceful. We shook hands and we parted."
But after polls showed Saidullayev beating Kadyrov, a Putin aide came to Saidullayev to urge him to drop out. Saidullayev refused and within days was knocked off the ballot on supposed violations involving candidacy petitions. The other leading challenger, Aslakhanov, now Putin's Chechnya adviser, was lured out of the race with a Kremlin job.
"When he was talking to me, he actually meant what he said," Saidullayev said of Putin. "But later, for some reason, something changed."
Staying the Course
Kadyrov was elected in October 2003, and a brief lull in the conflict followed. But Putin's promises to rebuild what had been destroyed in Chechnya never materialized. Millions of dollars in reconstruction financing disappeared. Refugees complained that compensation was stolen by local officials. And Kadyrov's militia, run by his son Ramzan, a boxer, terrorized many residents.
Soon, the separatists turned almost exclusively to terrorism to wage their war, bombing a rock concert, a hospital, a bus stop and a subway station. The attacks were often carried out by female suicide bombers known as black widows. The campaign escalated in May, starting with a bomb in Grozny that killed Kadyrov and shattered Putin's Chechenization policy.
Putin made a surprise visit to Chechnya days later -- his first in three years -- and pronounced himself shocked at how "horrible" Grozny looked. Deprived of independent reporting on Chechnya by state-controlled television, he appeared to grow distrustful of what he was told.
A month after Kadyrov's assassination, guerrillas raided neighboring Ingushetia, killing 90 people. Putin again visited and noted that what he saw was different from what he was told in Moscow. He fired several generals.
Still, he did not veer from his basic policy. A new election to replace Kadyrov was called and Saidullayev was again knocked off the ballot in favor of a preferred candidate. Chechen suicide bombers struck both before and after the election, blowing up two airliners and detonating explosives outside a Moscow subway station.
As the toll has mounted, public opinion has turned sharply against Putin's policy. In August, 68 percent of respondents favored peace talks and 21 percent supported continuing the war, according to a survey by the independent Yuri Levada Analytical Center. In a poll after the Beslan attack, 84 percent of Moscow residents held Russian security services responsible for the spread of terrorism and more called it a consequence of the war in Chechnya (49 percent) than international terrorism (42 percent).
Having blamed Maskhadov, the separatist leader, for Beslan and having ruled out talks with him, the president has no obvious negotiating partner if he were to choose that route.
"There are some guys in the government who are in favor of talks with separatists, but who to talk with?" said Vitaly Naumkin, a leading scholar who has advised Putin.
And even if one could be found among the more moderate separatists, Putin would risk alienating the pro-Kremlin Chechens who are under the loose command of Kadyrov's son, Ramzan.
Even ardent Putin backers say the president has few options. "It's not about Putin," said Akhmar Zavgayev, who represents Chechnya in parliament. "He's already done everything that depends on him."
And so, after the twin airline crashes and the subway bombing, Putin promised no change in course but a continued pursuit of Chechen terrorists. "We shall fight them, jail them and destroy them," he said.
Russian news services carried the statement at 9 a.m. on Sept. 1, just as three vehicles pulled up to School No. 1 in Beslan, and heavily armed guerrillas stormed out to make a school full of children the latest victims in a war that does not end.