Russia is claiming a major victory in the war against Chechen rebels with the killing of Mr. Aslan Maskhadov, leader of the Chechen separatist movement. Mr. Maskhadov has long been Moscow’s nemesis, but he is also thought to have been a genuine moderate among the Chechen militants. His death may intensify the violence that has already spilled over into Russian territory.

Mr. Maskhadov was a former Soviet soldier who took up arms on behalf of Chechen separatists after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He negotiated independence for Chechnya after a brutal and savage war with Russia from 1994-96, and was elected president in January 1997. The region’s independence was short lived: Two and a half years later, Mr. Vladimir Putin, then serving as Russia’s prime minister, reopened the war after claiming that Chechen militants, had masterminded terrorist attacks in Moscow. The evidence in support of that claim was, and still is, disputed.

With the resumption of conflict, Mr. Maskhadov assumed leadership of Chechen forces fighting the Russians and became Moscow’s public-enemy number one. Last week, Russian forces cornered the Chechen leader and killed him. Russia has called the killing a victory in the fight against extremist terrorism. Hardliners believe that Mr. Maskhadov’s death creates a vacuum at the heart of the Chechen resistance movement and that no one can match his ability to put a human face on the separatists or claim the loyalty of the majority of Chechens. In this scenario, infighting among the rebels to claim his mantle will leave the movement weak and divided.

Others considered Mr. Maskhadov to be the moderate face of the Chechen resistance movement. He endorsed negotiations with Moscow — a call that was ignored by the Kremlin — and he condemned the more spectacular attacks by Chechen extremists, such as the hostage taking at a school in Beslan, Russia, last September that claimed hundreds of lives — many of them children — and horrified the world. After that assault, Mr. Maskhadov even called for a ceasefire. Russian leaders, however, dismissed the idea of a divide between moderate and extremist terrorists, arguing any such differentiation was a mere public-relations trick.

The chief beneficiary of his death is likely to be Mr. Shamil Basayev, the man who masterminded the Beslan attack, the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater that resulted in 130 deaths and a number of attacks on Russian apartment buildings. Mr. Basayev is a devout Muslim who is said to be more interested in spreading Islam than winning Chechen independence. That is how Mr. Putin describes the conflict, and Mr. Basayev’s fierce tactics will strengthen Moscow’s claim that the struggle is against implacable terrorists rather than independence-minded separatists.

The problem is that Mr. Putin’s scorched earth strategy has failed. The Chechens’ lawfully elected government has been driven from power, but Moscow’s handpicked successors have been unable to control the region. Rebels launch attacks almost daily and the death toll among Russian forces and their Chechen allies continues to climb. Large parts of Chechnya are considered no-go zones. Akhmad Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter who switched sides and was subsequently elected president in a rigged ballot, was assassinated last year. Mr. Kadyrov’s son has taken over his father’s militia, but the group now seems more interested in looting and revenge than ending the conflict. Local opinion of the Russians and their supporters has hardened. Even worse, the conflict has now spread to Chechnya’s neighbors.

Still, Mr. Maskhadov’s death could present an opportunity for Moscow. Russia could choose to believe its own news, declare that the assassination wipes the slate clean and announce that it is ready to negotiate with the new leader of the Chechen movement. A real Chechen leader could deliver a genuine peace. But there is no sign that Moscow is ready to make the compromises that would be required — especially when Mr. Putin has declared that Russia is winning this war.

Mr. Basayev will not become the leader of the Chechen cause; reportedly Mr. Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, a Muslim cleric, was nominated by Mr. Maskhadov two years ago to succeed him. But Mr. Basayev will continue to be the movement’s military leader and will use the killing as an excuse to step up his own campaign of terror. Moscow’s fierce determination to crush the rebel movement, and its inability to do that, ensures that the cycle of violence will only escalate.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.