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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Is Anyone 'In Control'?

From the very beginning of the Budyonnovsk hostage tragedy, the phrase "the situation is under control" was one of the most oft-heard expressions coming from various representatives of the Russian administration. We heard it from everyone, from the president, prime minister, deputy prime ministers and local administrators in Stavropol. And we heard it perhaps most often from spokesmen for the power ministries, the very bodies charged with the task of safeguarding our security. But even a quick glance at the events of the last week reveals how little this statement reflected reality.

On June 14, a small town in southern Russia found itself completely under the control of a band of terrorists for a period of several hours. No one from the Interior Ministry, the Federal Counterintelligence Service or the Defense Ministry can tell us how such a massive operation could go undetected by security forces or how truckloads of soldiers and weapons could pass through more than 200 kilometers of Russian territory and end up in Budyonnovsk. Nonetheless, "the situation is under control."

Soon, Interior Ministry troops and special anti-terrorist units reached the town and surrounded the hospital complex. Against this background, President Boris Yeltsin left for Halifax: This time it was an international summit rather than an urgent operation on his nose that diverted the president from dealing with a domestic crisis.

As he boarded his plane, Yeltsin paused to tell reporters that now "the world community has finally understood with whom the federal forces have been waging war." An awkward choice of words, indeed. If federal troops are "waging war," then why has war or at least a state of emergency not been declared and why has the Federation Council not been notified in accordance with the constitution?

All day on June 16, government officials in Budyonnovsk and Moscow stated repeatedly and categorically that there would be no storming of the hospital because it would involve too many innocent casualties. Only Defense Minister Pavel Grachev announced on television that the criminals could not be talked out, that they must be destroyed, that force was the only solution. He was silent on the matter of how this could be done without killing the hostages.

At the same time, a number of Duma deputies rushed to the scene. Some came to help find a peaceful solution. Others, most notably Vladimir Zhirinovsky, lingered just long enough to appear before the cameras and earn some political capital off other people's suffering.

Immediately after Zhirinovsky's arrival, after innumerable official declarations that an attack is out of the question, the inevitable storm begins. Even now, it is impossible to say how many more innocent lives were taken in the two attempts to resolve the standoff by force, but we can assume that losses on both sides were considerable. Officials in Moscow were quick to deny that the attack had been ordered from the capital, saying that troops on the scene had simply been "responding emotionally" to the screams of the hostages. Simultaneously, Yeltsin was stating in Halifax that he had given the go-ahead to the attack even before he left Moscow. The situation is under control.

Next, local Cossack leaders issued an ultimatum that if the hostages were not quickly released, ethnic Chechen civilians living in the Stavropol district would be rounded up and executed. The specter of civil war hung in the air of the entire region of southern Russia. But the situation was under control.

Finally, at this late date, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin arrived on the political scene and took personal responsibility for handling the crisis. The Budyonnovsk tragedy was actually the second time that a military adventure connected with Chechnya forced Chernomyrdin to salvage the government's reputation. In January, after a meeting with Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin reported to the press that he had personally given the order to stop military action in Chechnya. This first effort to end the hostilities failed because the power ministers did not want to stop before they had garnered the illusive laurels of the "victors over the Chechen rebellion." In this case, the party of war was ultimately able to block a political solution, and there is no indication that the current second attempt will be more successful.

It will take some time for the lessons of Budyonnovsk to become clear, but some conclusions are already emerging. In Grozny, negotiations have begun -- the same negotiations for which Dzhokhar Dudayev has been calling since before the fighting began. Was it really necessary to destroy Grozny and the other cities and towns of Chechnya, to kill thousands of soldiers and civilians, simply to begin talks that by all rights should have begun months, if not years ago?

Budyonnovsk has shown that Russian society is fractured and the actions of the political leadership have intensified this split. If one seeks to learn who is to blame for what happened in Budyonnovsk, one must begin with the dramatic political mistakes of Russia's policies in Chechnya. Also, one must look at Western leaders who were willing to close their eyes to human-rights violations in exchange for promises that democratic reforms would move forward.

Fortunately, Budyonnovsk has shown that Russians do not want a civil war and that they will resist by all possible means attempts to push the country into chaos. Now the process of sorting things out is underway, and Yeltsin has promised to punish those responsible. It would be good if he began with those who decided to undertake a military solution in Chechnya in the first place. After all, when leaders claim that "the situation is under control," people have a right to know, "by whom?"

Alexander Konovalov is the director of the military policy center at the Academy of Sciences' Institute of the United States and Canada. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.