BESLAN AND MOSCOW, RUSSIA
As the memorial shrine in the Beslan school gymnasium grows larger by the day - with mourners leaving bottles of water, food, and toys to mark the thirst and hunger inflicted for three days upon hostages by terrorists last week - one handwritten note points to a troubling future.
On a piece of white cloth inside an escape hole dug into the gym wall are written the words, "Here began the Third World War - against Terror."
The Kremlin's strategy is beginning to take shape, as Russia comes to grips with the magnitude of the Beslan tragedy - with the death of some 330 hostages, the secondmost lethal terror attack in recent history after Sept. 11, 2001.
President Vladimir Putin refuses to meet with top Chechen separatist leaders, whom he holds responsible for a wave of terror that includes two downed passenger jets, a suicide bomb in Moscow, and the hostage crisis. But analysts say that Mr. Putin may offer far broader autonomy to Chechnya, which adds up to "de facto independence," according to American experts who took part in a 3 1/2-hour meeting with the Russian leader.
"He's not going to deal with a group of fighters who carry out terror attacks ... He wants to annihilate the radicals," says Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution in Washington, who met with Putin on Monday.
Putin offered "maximum autonomy, even to the point of violating the Russian constitution," says Ms. Hill. "Does he have something down in a blueprint? I don't know. But I would say give him the benefit of the doubt for now, and see what he does."
Military officials amplified past threats on Wednesday in moves that in some ways mirror US steps after 9/11. Chief of Staff Col. Gen. Yury Baluyevsky warned of "preemptive strikes ... to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world." A $10 million reward is being offered for information leading to the "neutralization" of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and the more moderate former Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov.
"You always get this wave of macho talk about how we're going to do this and do that, in order to show that the military is still worth it," says Anatol Lieven, author of "Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power,"at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The steps are meant to equate Kremlin steps with preemptive US moves. These include threats against Georgia in 2002 over Chechen rebel bases, and the killing of a former Chechen leader in a car bomb in Qatar in February. Russia denies any involvement, but two Russian security agents have been convicted in the case.
"They are saying that what's good for the goose is good for the gander: If you [in the US] can do it, we after such an attack can do it as well," says Mr. Lieven. "The military has obviously failed. [The Kremlin] is bankrupt, totally bankrupt of ideas. This is a strong warning to the Georgians not to allow the Chechens to reestablish themselves in the Pankisi Gorge."
Boris Kagarlitsky, head of the Institute of Comparative Politics in Moscow, is blunter: "It is pure propaganda ... that will not make any strategic or military sense. It reminds one of a man who is in fact impotent, but wants to pretend he is still a Casanova."
The Gazeta newspaper Thursday reported that there are no large guerrilla bases in Chechnya anymore. "There are only small groups [in] temporary camps," the newspaper quoted a counterterrorism official as saying. "As a rule, they are several mud huts and a [weapons] cache. As soon as it is found, artillery destroys it or aircraft bomb it."
Putin admitted Russian "mistakes" and "injustices" against the Chechens during two wars in the past decade, and took a hard line on talks with separatists, saying meeting them would be like inviting Osama bin Laden to the White House.
"Why should we talk to people who are child-killers?" Putin reportedly asked. Critics charge that the brutality of Russian forces in Chechnya has itself enabled radicals, and paved the way for support by groups such as Al Qaeda. When Putin came to power in 1999, he vowed to "rub out" the Chechen rebels "in the outhouse." But today terror attacks continue and even his policy of "Chechenization" is in disarray.
"Certainly the veins on his skull bulge when he talks about [autonomy]," says Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Foundation, who also attended the Putin meeting. "He spoke about expanding the dialogue and drawing in groups that have not been included before."
Finding those groups will not be easy. "[Putin's] been thinking hard, and looks like an alarmed man who has his back up against the wall," says Hill. "He needs help on border security, on intelligence gathering because they just don't have the capacity anymore. This is the kind of job the FSB [formerly the KGB] used to do."
And already, the violence of the last decade - in which Chechens have been systematically abused, according to human rights groups - has radicalized thinking. More may follow.
"The Russians have not yet done everything that they could in terms of savagery," says Lieven. "All this talk of Russian abuses - most of [it is] true. But if you remember American strategy in Vietnam, or the French in Algeria, they cleared extensive areas of the countryside, put people behind barbed wire ... Anyone in those areas was by definition an enemy and shot on the spot."
"The Russians haven't done that yet," adds Lieven. "Another few attacks like this [and] the Russians could adopt much more ferocious measures."