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Scheming to Terrorize Terrorists

Russia's decision to use gas in theater may be a message in itself.

October 30, 2002|Avigdor Haselkorn | Avigdor Haselkorn is the author of "The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence" (Yale University Press, 1999).

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was in a tough situation. Chechen terrorists held more than 750 hostages in a theater in Moscow. The terrorists and their target were heavily rigged with explosives. The specter of carnage because of a customary military rescue operation was very much on the agenda. And time was running out as the terrorists had started to kill hostages.

The Russians decided to use a novel incapacitating agent as the best means to save the hostages at minimum cost. Although this goal was essentially achieved, Russian authorities miscalculated the dosage of the gas, which killed all but two of the more than 115 hostages who died.

But there is another possibility: The Russian medium was the message. The rescue operation could be viewed as the first shot in a risky new strategy to deter suicide terrorism. There are several reasons for viewing the Russian response as strategically significant:

* The use of an incapacitating gas in a hostage rescue operation is without precedent.

* Despite the outcry in Russia and the demands of foreign governments, authorities have not told doctors treating the freed hostages what substance was used or the dose. The reason for not telling could be Russia's obsession with secrecy. Or the Russians could be concerned that next time, terrorists could acquire the gas or self-administer antidotes before they attack. Whatever the case, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow has said that Russia's failure to disclose information on the gas may have cost lives.

If true, the Russians view the preservation of their new deterrent as more important than the lives of their own people. The operation accorded the new Russian weapon publicity and ambiguity at the same time, which could enhance its deterrence value.

* In the wake of the operation, the Interfax news agency on Monday quoted Putin as saying that if terrorists "tried to use [weapons of mass destruction] in relation to our country, Russia will answer with measures adequate to the threats." He seems to be saying: I resorted to gas even against a conventional threat. Do not question my credibility.

The Russian rescue operation sends the message that Russia is ready to sacrifice its own citizens in the struggle against suicide terrorism.

Indeed, officials were quoted as saying that victims' families would receive financial compensation: 100,000 rubles (about $3,200) for each dead hostage and half that for those who survived.

This could be viewed as an answer to the stipend that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is paying to families of Palestinian suicide bombers who attack Israel. Moreover, the Russians have used the Moscow episode to issue an unmistakable threat to annihilate any terrorist enemy who would resort to weapons of mass destruction against them.

The view that the Russian operation was solely aimed at ending the siege is incomplete. True, Putin faced a difficult challenge and was looking for the best way to resolve it without giving in. But he and his commanders must have known what the consequences could be. They embraced these potential human costs to deter suicide terrorism.

Will the new doctrine be effective? An incident like this may never happen in the same way again, if only because future hostage-takers will protect themselves. Putin's brutal response may mean that future outrages would be of the cataclysmic kind that happened in Bali recently or on Sept. 11, 2001, when the goal was mass murder, not negotiations.

Of course, it is also possible that the new approach will dissuade terrorists from attempting mega-attacks. Whatever the outcome, we are on a new page in strategic deterrence.

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