More than 115 hostages perished after Russian commandos stormed the Moscow theater that Chechen radicals had taken over as about 750 people were having a pleasant evening at a popular musical.
But it wasn't the radicals or even the crossfire that killed all but two of the captives. It was a noxious gas that rescuers had pumped into the building to incapacitate the Chechens and prevent them from killing all their captives.
The dreadful denouement has focused international attention on the Putin government's use of the unidentified chemical agent, its failure to have antidotes immediately at hand and its Soviet-esque approach to releasing information.
The Kremlin's behavior is indeed troubling, but in the anguish, a larger issue -- that Russia's war in Chechnya is at a dead end, and it's time for a new tack -- is receiving short shrift. The war's savagery has escaped most people in the West because it has fallen off the front pages. Yet it has driven about 225,000 Chechens into the neighboring and penurious republic of Ingushetia.
The Chechen capital, Grozny (appropriately, Russian for terrible), is a ruin. Farms and factories have been destroyed. Widows and orphans abound. The types of cold-eyed people created by this hellish environment are exemplified by the men and women who were calmly prepared to kill a mass of innocent Moscow theatergoers.
And though these particular people may be dead or in custody, there will be others. Chechnya offers a steady supply of people for whom life is like a used Kleenex. Russia's war is, to put it mildly, going badly at the front. Military helicopters are shot out of the sky regularly; bombing and assassination attempts target Russian officials and members of the pro-Russian Chechen government; fragmented but dogged guerrillas (who the Kremlin claims are finished) launch persistent hit-and-run operations.
What last week's hostage-taking shows is that the zone of combat has been extended from the front to the rear. The most extreme Chechen groups have decided that Russian civilians need to feel their pain.
The recent hostage drama, then, is preface to a new stage in the war. It promises to be a gruesome one.
For Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, the only way out of Chechnya is to admit what Russians are coming to realize in increasing numbers anyway: Not only is Russia not winning the war, the war is unwinnable. But simply withdrawing the Russian army amounts to a cave-in, not a strategy. Russia should indeed end this military fiasco, but it also needs to devise a different solution for Chechnya.
A new approach would be to replace war-fighting with containment -- that is, drastically tightened border controls and stringent monitoring of financial flow. The goal would be to ensure that Chechnya's turmoil -- and let there be no mistake, even greater chaos will ensue when Russia leaves because Chechen warlords will turn on each other once again -- remains sealed within its borders.
Containment would staunch money laundering and gunrunning, prevent Chechen extremists from crossing into Russia to commit acts of terror and cut outside support to the extremists.
Russia could not do this alone. Like our own war on terrorism, a containment plan must have support from other countries.
The United States should be eager to lend a helping hand. We have the expertise; we have a stake in not allowing Chechnya to become a branch office of Al Qaeda; and we have an interest in preventing Russia's ruinous war from eroding its fragile democracy and endangering the economic recovery that it has finally begun to enjoy.
Is containment guaranteed to work? Of course not. Is it an ideal solution? No. But in this messy war, there are no perfect solutions. It's a matter of choosing the least bad option.
Rajan Menon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign, Relations, is a professor of international relations at Lehigh, University.