Most Hostages Saved, But Chechnya Still Bogs Down Putin

Cool and composed throughout the 58-hour hostage crisis, President Vladimir Putin came away with a mixed victory Saturday: Most of the hostages were saved but his presidency remains snarled by the war in Chechnya.

Putin strove throughout the drama to project an image of a leader in charge. He presided at meetings in the Kremlin with his top security officials and took direct control of the government's response to the crisis, focusing on action while saying little.

Once it was over, the president adopted a caring manner, surprising doctors when he appeared at a hospital and donned a white hospital gown to chat amiably with some of the freed captives. He touched one on the shoulder, joked with another.

Putin appears to have learned some lessons in leadership since he came to power. In August 2000, he was roundly accused of being callous for staying on vacation after the submarine Kursk exploded and sank in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 sailors aboard.

This time, Putin quickly canceled a trip to Germany and Portugal and most importantly a meeting with President Bush during this weekend's Pacific Rim summit in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, so he could supervise the hostage crisis at home.

He also went on national television Saturday night and apologized to his countrymen for failing to save all the hostages.

Putin was under tremendous pressure to wrap up the siege in a hurry and avoid a protracted crisis that could undermine his authority in trying to quell the uprising in Chechnya.

"It is a great political and morale victory for Russia," Dmitry Rogozin, the chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said Saturday on Russian TV. "It's the first step to a political solution."

Putin's presidency, however, remains blighted by the defiance of Chechen warriors who refuse to put down their guns. Putin rose to power with a promise to get tough on the Muslim separtists.

Even though his political ratings remain high, polls indicate a diminishing number of Russians believe Putin's strategy of using force is the right course. In recent polls, more than half favor a peaceful solution, while only about a quarter support continued military action. A growing number, up to 20 percent in some polls, say Russia should just cut Chechnya loose and give it independence.

At the start of the hostage crisis, anti-war demonstrators gathered outside the theater carrying banners and chanting for an end to the war.

Authorities clamped down on news media coverage of the siege, threatening to shut down outlets that broadcast the hostage-takers demanding that Russian troops leave Chechnya.

The Kremlin is deeply concerned that indepedence for Chechnya could fuel separatist sentiment in other areas and lead to the unraveling of the Russian Federation.

But more than three years after Russian troops entered Chechnya at the start of the second Chechen war, Putin still has no clear plan for ending a conflict that has brought terrorist bombings and other hostage-takings outside the war zone.

The victory in ending the theater siege in Moscow with most of the hostages escaping harm could well be a fleeting one if concrete steps are not made toward resolving the war.

"We can't have any euphoria," said Vladimir Lukin, the deputy speaker of parliament and a former Russian ambassador to the United States. "I don't think we have broken their will," he said of the Chechen rebels.

During the crisis, Russian television became a nearly nonstop live workshop on Chechnya, with lawmakers, analysts and Chechen officials all weighing in with their views of what to do. Their answer was invariably the same: The Kremlin must start a dialogue with the separtists.

Even Putin, who previously had said he would not talk with rebels, said he was open to "any contacts" that would help lead to a peaceful settlement.

Yet a political solution that would leave Chechnya within the borders of the Russian Federation is opposed by hard-core separatists.

Meanwhile, a continuation of what Chechens view as Russia's pursuit of a brutal military campaign could drive more young people toward the kind of extremism like the seizure of the theater.

"Even if we are killed, thousands of brothers and sisters will come after us, ready to sacrifice themselves," one of the female hostage-takers said on a tape made before the seizure.