Everybody's calling it "senseless," the Chechen raid on Beslan in North Ossetia. Well, the sad thing is, it wasn't senseless. Look at it coldly and it makes a horrible kind of strategic sense.
The thing to keep in mind is that the Chechens who organized this always knew it was going to end with lots of Ossetian kids dead. The Chechens were playing a game of dominoes, Caucasus-style. It's a nasty, twisted, gory game, and to understand it you have to get an idea of how the Caucasian homelands line up.
The Caucasus is a row of mountain valleys, and each valley is a tribal homeland. From East to West, it's Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Ossetia. The Chechens are looking to take the war away from their homeland. They can't do this sort of nightmare attack on Dagestan, because most of the three-dozen little tribes there are Muslim, and it's too useful to the Chechen rebels as a cross-border sanctuary and smuggling route. Same thing with Ingushetia; the Ingush are fellow Muslims, very close to Chechnya, already sympathetic -- too useful to antagonize.
Ah, but one homeland, one valley over from the Ingush are the Ossetians, who are Christians, and old allies of the Russians.
And the Chechens are desperate. They're fighting their second war with the Russian Army in the past decade. They actually won the first one, pushing the Russian Army out in 1996, but that hurt the Russians' pride so much that Putin launched a second attack, better planned, fiercer, in 1999, which helped propel him to the presidency. Since then Chechnya has been one long bloodbath. This little province costs the Russian Army 1,500 dead a year, the same rate they lost per year in Afghanistan and way more than we're losing in Iraq.
Nobody knows how many Chechens have died; a lot, that's all we know. Some estimates say up to 200,000, or about a fifth of their pre-wars population; others say about 70,000. It's an evil, sleazy war on both sides. The Russian "contractors" (meaning mercenaries) raid Chechen villages, kidnap men who might be guerrillas, torture and shoot them, and make play with their families if the mood is right. The Chechens set off mines, IEDs, and grab a Russian or collaborator now and then so they can videotape themselves cutting off his fingers or beating him to death.
And the thing about that kind of stalemated guerrilla war is, it can go on forever. The Russian Army can't wipe out the rebels, because for every Chechen they kill another steps up. Remember the lesson of 20th-century warfare: birthrate wins. And the average Chechen woman has nine kids. With a birthrate like that, the Chechens will always have little brothers ready to avenge their elders.
And the Chechens can't wipe out the Russians either -- because Russia's so poor that Putin can always find men willing to take the risk of fighting there as mercenaries.
So the only way the Chechens can break the stalemate is to take the war into somebody else's territory. Naturally, their first choice would be Russia. And they've done a pretty good, gory job of slashing their way into Russia over the past ten years. The pattern is always the same: they zoom into Russian territory, grab as many hostages as they can and use their lives to barter with the Russian authorities. Some classic examples:
1995: Chechens grab a whole hospital in Budyonnovsk, in southern Russia. (You Russian Civil War fans will notice the town was named after General Budyonny, a pretty scary dude himself, leader of the Red Cavalry.) The Russian Army, which was in pitiful shape back then, finally let the Chechens go home scot-free.
1996: The Chechens grabbed an incredible 2000 hostages in Dagestan. The Russians agreed to let the fighters retreat to Chechnya, then attacked them anyway. 78 dead, mostly hostages. There's another pattern you'll see repeated here: Russian commanders changing their minds or just not having a decent plan.