Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Siege Makes West Ask 'Could We?'

LONDON -- Fourteen months ago, the idea that a country would use a secret chemical agent for a police operation in the center of its own capital would have been unthinkable.

Welcome to the new world.

As Russians mourn the dead of the Moscow siege, you can bet politicians worldwide are asking one question of their security chiefs: Could we have pulled that off?

And the security chiefs are asking one question back: Would we have dared?

Nobody has ever held so many hostages in the heart of a major metropolis, threatening to kill them all.

And security forces have never responded with anything like the mystery poison used Saturday.

"I know that politicians have -- since this hostage thing began -- have been saying to their advisers: 'Give me a plan here,'" said Paul Beaver, director of London-based security and defense consultancy Ashbourne Beaver Associates.

"What would we do? How soon can we fly our special forces into the city? Do we have a knockout gas like this? What is available?"

In the cold calculus of security planners, a hostage siege that ends with the demands of the captors unmet and fewer than 30 percent of captives killed is considered a success.

By that standard, Russian special forces who used a lethal knock-out gas to subdue Chechen rebels holding more than 750 hostages would have passed the test even if 240 had died.

The media have been divided over whether Russian tactics were excessively harsh or brilliantly decisive.

But security experts say they would be hard pressed to come up with a better plan.

"My own feeling about the whole thing is that it would be better to look at this not in terms of the number of people who were killed, but in terms of the number who were saved," said Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, whose expertise includes knowledge of special forces tactics.

"It is very difficult to envisage any other solution than the one they adopted, especially if they started killing hostages."

And most Western countries -- where military-strength tactics and weapons are kept out of the hands of civilian police -- would probably not have been able to pull it off.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Western leaders have been forced to confront the concept of military-scale threats erupting in the midst of the homeland. That means giving civilian authorities access to the military-strength capabilities.

"One of the key problems they have is matching the law and the politics with the capability. The civil power have the authority, but the military have the capabilities," said Beaver.

"You had the same thing in the first days of Sept. 11 in deciding who should give the order for a fighter aircraft to shoot down an airliner."

In Moscow this week, paramilitary police units were able to take the decision to use a secret military poison gas only three days after rebels took the theatre.

It is hard to imagine a Western democracy taking such a decision so quickly, just as it is hard to imagine another tactic that would have saved 80 percent of the hostages.

"It would have to go in Britain to a cabinet committee meeting. Same thing in the United States. The Russians don't have this problem," Beaver said.

Many have criticized the Russian authorities for keeping the nature of the gas a secret, something that would be difficult to imagine in the West, where victims' families would demand to know what had been used.

But unless there is an antidote to the gas -- which seems unlikely -- Heyman said the Russians are right to keep silent.

"The people who will go through this, any reports, in absolutely fine detail are the terrorists who are planning future operations," he said.

"The ones it can help the most are future terrorists. You better believe they will be desperate for any information about the type of gas, how it's used and its effects."

Welcome to the new world.