Putin's inability to deal with Chechen problem will undermine his standing among the people

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The Independent Online

When it came, the end of the siege at School No 1, in the small North Ossetian town of Beslan, was the worst possible outcome. It was a protracted, chaotic, bloody catastrophe, not just for the families of the many dead and injured, but for President Vladamir Putin, for his government and for any prospects of an early solution to the conflict in Chechnya.

This siege, far from Moscow, was seen by many Russians outside the immediate vicinity of Chechnya as an opportunity for Mr Putin and Russian authorities to redeem themselves. Coming, as it did, so soon after the downing of two Russian planes by suicide bombers, and another bomb attack close to the Moscow metro, the hope was that Mr Putin would show what his administration was made of by cracking down hard on the hostage-takers in Beslan. But Russians were also hoping against hope that there would be a clean end to the siege, in which the guilty would be summarily punished and the innocent - especially the many children - rescued safely.

The capture of so many children destroyed what last vestige of sympathy Russians might have had for the Chechen cause. On the first day there was even a demonstration against the siege in the Chechen capital, Grozny. But Mr Putin also let it be known early on that authorities would do "nothing to put the lives of the children at risk".

In some ways, the reaction of the authorities began promisingly. Mr Putin pledged restraint and expressed a strong preference for a peaceful solution. The local authorities established contact with the hostage-takers through a local doctor, and appointed a negotiator - a former president of the neighbouring region of Ingushetia. The talks resulted in the release of 26 hostages, including babes in arms. In an unprecedented move, Mr Putin also took Russia's plight to the United Nations Security Council, obtaining UN moral support and a statement that placed militant Chechen separatism in the context of global terrorism. All this suggested that Mr Putin was intent on taking a cautious approach.

This may have been the intention. Late yesterday, it was still not certain whether the special operations forces, the Spetsnaz, had mounted their operation according to an advance plan, or whether some sudden development inside the school precipitated their assault. Unfortunately, what happened - the chaos of the operation and the great number of casualties - made Mr Putin look simultaneously disingenuous, incompetent and weak.

Far from banishing the negative images of the Moscow theatre siege, when 160 people died, not from the Chechens' attack, but from the failure of the emergency services to treat hostages for the after-effects of gas, the Beslan operation only reinforced them. Militarily, the Russian special forces' operation at the Moscow theatre was judged a success; in any other terms it was a disaster. Yesterday's operation seems to have failed miserably on all counts.

Worse, from Mr Putin's point of view, at least some of the hostage-takers initially escaped and may remain at large, possibly with some of the children. An operation intended to rescue the hostages and punish the Chechen militants thus achieved almost the opposite result. In the process, it also exposed the distressing reality that the well-known shortcomings of the Russian military and emergency services has not been tackled. The operation was poorly supplied and poorly co-ordinated. This was not an operation that any branch of Russia's military could be proud of, and reflects poorly on its commander-in-chief, Mr Putin.

The outcome will weaken Mr Putin's already ebbing authority. Institutionally, the Russian President was never stronger than after his landslide re-election last March. The parliamentary elections had already given his party a huge majority in the new Duma and he had appointed a new government with no challenge to any of his nominated ministers. The economy is thriving, and the soaring price of oil has given Russia a healthy budget surplus that is fuelling higher wages, higher benefits and a rising standard of living.

Despite all these advantages, however, Mr Putin's administration has increasingly given an impression of drift. The Yukos affair, with the trial for fraud of the former head of the country's biggest oil company, has unsettled Russian business and foreign investors. Because the trial is believed to have been, in part, politically motivated, it has also cast doubt on Mr Putin's ability to make Russia the law-governed country he says he wants. Russia's new generation of Kremlinologists divines a struggle for power between opposing factions of hardliners and reformists which is paralysing the administration. As a manager, a technocrat, Mr Putin is seen by the same analysts as caught between the two groups and hobbled by his continuing lack of a strong political base in the Kremlin.

Such an assessment may be too pessimistic. A recent tussle between reformists and others is believed to have seen the reformists prevail. New legislation is quietly proceeding through the Duma. Individuals and companies are, for the most part, paying their taxes. Nor is there any suggestion that Mr Putin's position as president is at risk. It is rather a question of how much authority he will wield.

Yesterday's events are likely to weaken his popularity, and public confidence in his leadership - consistently high - will also decline. So will the trust of Russians in Mr Putin's ability to deal with the Chechen issue once and for all. A strong president with a convincing victory over Chechen terrorism under his belt would be in a far stronger position to shift gears and propose a new approach to the problem. It is highly unlikely that a weakened Mr Putin will change tack. He cannot afford to moderate his position - and, anyway, a Russian public that is angrier than ever with Chechen militancy will not let him.