Three years ago he launched Russia's second war to quell Chechen separatism, and handily won subsequent presidential elections on the strength of the Russian military victories that followed. But the conflict has dragged on, killing an average of three federal soldiers daily in the embattled republic.
Polls show Russians growing exhausted with the war. "This terrible event in Moscow shows that we have not succeeded in containing the war within the borders of Chechnya," says Sergei Karaganov, head of the pro-Kremlin Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. "This war has been very closely associated with Putin's name, and he must be seen bringing this situation quickly under control or he may lose badly from it."
The crisis began late Wednesday when the highly organized detachment of Chechen rebels seized the Palace of Culture on Melnikova Street in southeast Moscow, where the popular patriotic musical "Nord-Ost" was being staged. The attackers, wearing balaclavas and thick wads of explosive around their waists, fired shots and ordered everyone to be seated. The attackers released about 150 children, pregnant women, and Muslims, before planting booby traps around the 1,000-seat theater's doors and windows.
Efforts to gain release of some 65 foreigners, including two Americans, were stalled Thursday afternoon. The body of a woman was taken out of the theater yesterday, though details as to the cause of her death were unclear.
A Chechen rebel-sponsored website claimed responsibility for the raid and said it was under the command of Movsar Barayev, a Chechen warlord whose uncle, Arbi Barayev was killed fighting Russian troops last year.
"This is an almost impossible situation for our security forces," says Maxim Pyadushkin, deputy head of the independent Center for Strategic and Technological Analysis in Moscow. "They are operating in the heart of a metropolis, with little room to maneuver. The eyes of the world are upon them. One has the impression that these terrorists are ready to be martyrs, to blow themselves up with the hostages if the police try to move in."