Oleg Gordievsky, writing in today's Sunday Telegraph, discusses Beslan and its likely consequences. Gordievsky was one of Putin's former colleagues in the KGB, and was also the highest-ranking KGB officer to work for MI6.
Despite all the caring, sympathetic noises he is now making, Putin has a fabulous indifference to human life. When the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk was stuck on the bottom of the Baltic, its 118 crew suffocating and freezing slowly to death, he didn't even bother to interrupt his holiday. When he was later interviewed on CNN about what had happened to the Kursk, he simply smiled and said: "It went to the bottom." About the 118 Russians who died he said not a word.
The thousands of deaths in the war in Chechnya don't move him in the least. He regards them as "normal wastage" - a hardly noticeable price which has to be paid for maintaining Russian control of Chechnya. That is the traditional KGB view, an attitude I remember all too well from my own days in the organisation
Russia's army and its security forces aim to inculcate an attitude of total indifference to the loss of human life, and they certainly succeeded in the case of Vladimir Putin. For example, for at least as long as he has been president, the Russian press has published stories about the more than 1,000 Russian army conscripts - they are teenage boys - who are killed every year during training, often as a result of being viciously bullied by other soldiers. And what has been Putin's response? Nothing at all.
Putin believes he can bludgeon the Chechens into submission. Hundreds of dead children from a school in North Ossetia won't be enough to persuade him to change that policy. He may never accept that it has failed. And yet Russia has very little reason to continue to be so intransigent on the issue of greater autonomy for Chechnya. Chechnya's oil reserves are almost spent; the country has few other natural resources; and its "strategic" importance to Russia is largely a myth. Most Chechens are not Islamic fundamentalists, or even seriously Islamic at all. Al-Qaeda is not welcome there, and I regard it as almost inconceivable that there was any serious al-Qaeda involvement in the hostage-taking in Ossetia, despite the claims from the Russians that they have identified 10 "Arabs" among the dead.
Putin has been able to convince the world that his war in Chechnya is part of the global "war on terror". It is not. It is a totally avoidable civil war which has very little to do with Osama bin Laden or indeed any group of Islamic fanatics. But by persuading gullible Western leaders such as Tony Blair and George W Bush that, in Chechnya, he is dealing with the same sort of people who destroyed the World Trade Center, Putin has been applauded, even while he uses exceptional cruelty in prosecuting his unnecessary war. No civilised person can deny that the hostage-takers have taken barbarity and inhumanity to new depths. But in President Putin, they are up against a leader who has as little regard for human life as they do.
The whole article is worthy of serious attention.