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Putin's Preemption

Just as Sept. 11 brought a war about radical Islam to the US homeland, so, too, did the massive hostage-taking at a Moscow theater last week bring a war about Chechen independence to the heart of Russia.

In fact, the three-day drama, ending in the suspicious knockout gassing of hundreds of hostages and some 50 Chechen terrorists, took place within three miles of the Kremlin.

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The final showdown revealed much about the dilemma facing Russian President Vladimir Putin in ending the long war in Chechnya and his support for President Bush's campaign against international terrorism.

Mr. Putin craftily preempted the terrorists in their threat to blow up the theater with bombs if their demands were not met. He decided to risk the lives of some of the hostages in trying to avoid losing all of them.

It was a bold calculation, much like Mr. Bush's calculation that a war now against Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction will save more lives in the future than the war itself will lose.

In the days ahead, however, Russians will be second-guessing Putin's choice. The toll of hostages is rising as still more succumb to the effects of a gas injected into the theater that left most of those inside unconscious. At least 1 in 7 of the more than 800 captives have died either as a result of the way the theater was stormed or at the hands of the terrorists. Putin has asked for forgiveness for such a high loss but claims that even more would have been lost through any other scenario. This should be questioned.

Putin should also be challenged for the way Russia has waged a low-level military campaign against the Chechen population for their support of independence-seeking rebels.

Now that a particular band of rebels has made an abhorrent attack on Russian civilians, Putin may demand a free hand from Mr. Bush and other Western leaders to eradicate all rebels in Chechnya, even with the usual heavy losses of civilians that Russian soldiers have been known to inflict.

The West should not allow Putin to paint a struggle of national liberation with the broad brush of terrorism just because of a small minority of terrorists. Russia has already caused an estimated 80,000 casualties in Chechnya since the war broke out in the mid-1990s. He should either accept an independent Chechnya or negotiate some sort of autonomy. Most Chechens probably don't support terrorism, and those are the people who need Putin's attention.