Vladimir Putin has recounted the events of the 2002 hostage crisis in Moscow, arguably the low point of his first presidential term. He said the removal of terrorists by using deadly gas prevented a much bloodier outcome.
The three-day confrontation at the Dubrovka theater remains one of the worst terrorism incidents in Russia’s history. Some four dozen militants captured over 850 hostages in a theater in central Moscow, rigged the building with powerful explosives and demanded that Russia withdraw all troops from the southern Chechen Republic.
In an interview shown in a new documentary, Putin said the terrorists’ ultimate intention was a long standoff ending in a bloody finale in the heart of the Russian capital.
“Their plan was to get a bus full of hostages, drive to Red Square and to gun them down right in Red Square, throwing the bodies out. They wanted to influence the leadership and the special services by that. We certainly could not allow that,” he said.
The plan the Russian security services came up with was to pump a sedative gas into the vents, taking down a wall behind the stage and using sniper fire to kill the terrorists, who were sitting among the hostages and holding bomb triggers in their hands. The engagement was planned to last mere seconds, so that the dust raised by the falling wall wouldn’t obscure the targets. There was also concern that the gas may not work as planned and that one of the terrorists would be conscious enough to detonate the explosives.
“Then in the night the director of the [Russian security service] FSB called me when the time for action came and reported that the gas has been deployed but did not work,” Putin said. “They could see it. I asked why and the response was ‘we don’t know, maybe some draft blows it away’.”
That was the night before the planned mass killing of the hostages by the terrorists, so there was no time to prepare an alternative scenario. Putin either had to order the commandos to proceed despite a very high risk of triggering the deadly trap or face a massacre. He ordered the operation to go ahead, and the outcome was not as disastrous as it might have been.
“The combat operation itself was exceptionally successful. Not a single hostage was harmed,” said then-FSB head Nikolay Patrushev in the same documentary. “But then reports started to arrive about deaths.”
The gas turned out to be effective enough to ensure that the bombs did not go off, but the outcome was far from being bloodless. Almost 120 of the hostages died from complications caused by the chemical, and Putin said those deaths were preventable.
“They did not die because of firefights or even the gas. They died because we didn’t know how to act in such circumstances. There were enough doses of injectable antidote. Some people received two or three shots, some received none.”
Patrushev defended the decision to use the knock-out gas. “We used the same compound on other occasions, even though we didn’t advertise it, and there were no fatalities,” he said.
The chaotic response to the incident was partially explained by the circumstances of the hostage crisis. Putin said he didn’t consider it right to punish the people who risked their own lives in a seemingly doomed attempt to save the hostages for the mistakes they made. Especially since they had to act swiftly in a building full of booby traps planted by the terrorists.
“What happened did happen,” Putin said. “I am certain that if we had done nothing, the number of casualties would have been much higher.”