Russia’s most wanted man is dead. Shamil Basayev, the leader of Chechen rebels who has masterminded acts of terror that have claimed hundreds of lives, was killed this week in an explosion. His death is a victory for the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a blow to the cause Basayev headed; it will not end the separatist movement, however, nor is it likely to halt the violence.
Chechen separatists have fought two wars with Russia over the past 15 years. The first began in 1991, when Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev declared independence from Russia. Full-scale fighting broke out in 1994, and for two years the sides fought to a bloody standstill.
Basayev, a former member of the Soviet military who was said to have been selling computers in Moscow, was one of the rebels’ most successful field commanders. The stalemate on the battlefield resulted in virtual independence for Chechnya. Basayev ran for president but lost; he briefly served as prime minister in 1998.
By 1999, he is reported to have fallen under the spell of radical Islam. Basayev led a group of soldiers into neighboring Dagestan in an attempt to unite the two republics. That provided the trigger for a second war with Russia, one that Mr. Putin was determined to win. It was a bloody conflict, marked by atrocities on both sides.
Basayev was always a Chechen nationalist. He first won international attention for masterminding the hijacking of a Russian airliner on the eve of the first Chechen war. But his views hardened as the war progressed. The loss of most of his immediate family members, including his first wife, when Russian planes bombed his hometown in 1995 spurred the change in his outlook.
In June 1995, Basayev engineered an attack on a hospital in the Russian town of Budyonnovsk, in which 1,000 people were taken hostage and 100 killed. Setting a precedent that was repeated too often in the future, dozens of other lives were lost when Russian soldiers stormed the hospital to end the siege. In 2002, he organized the seizure of a Moscow theater in which hundreds of people were taken hostage. The Russian attempt to free them resulted in 129 deaths, virtually all from the gas the soldiers used to incapacitate the guerrillas and their victims.
Basayev’s most shocking attack came in September 2004, when Chechen rebels seized a school in the town of Breslan, in southern Russia. More than 331 people, mostly women and children, were killed in that appalling act.
All in all, Basayev can be blamed for more than 800 deaths, the overwhelming majority of the victims innocent civilians. This earned him the label of public enemy No. 1 in Russia and a $10 million bounty.
On Monday, Basayev was killed when a truck in his convoy exploded. The Russian government took credit for the accident, calling it the work of special operations forces. The Chechen separatists conceded their leader was dead, but said it was an accident; there was speculation that he might have been killed as a result of mishandling dynamite. Other reports say Basayev was killed in a pinpoint missile strike. Russian security officials said Basayev was plotting an attack that would embarrass Mr. Putin as he hosted world leaders later this week at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg.
Whatever the cause, Basayev’s death is a huge moral boost for Mr. Putin. He had vowed to end the insurgency when he took office, and Russian troops have had several notable recent successes. Last month, the separatists’ political leader, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, was killed by Russian security services and allied Chechen forces. Sadulayev’s predecessor, Aslan Maskhadov, was killed in March 2005.
That boost is not likely to be enough to win the war. The loss of Basayev is important — some likened it to killing Osama bin Laden — but every time a Chechen leader has been killed, a new one has emerged to take his place. The real problem is that Chechen grievances are real and the war that has been waged against them has only intensified their grief, despair and anger.
The trajectory of Basayev’s own life is testimony to the toll exacted by the savagery of Russian tactics. That is not to excuse the equally horrific acts that Basayev perpetrated against other innocents. But it should be a reminder that violence begets only more violence and that Chechen grievances are rooted in the injustice done to them. Until Moscow understands that simple fact, there will be no end to the cycle of violence, nor peace in the battered region of Caucasus.
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