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September 9, 2004
By Yevgeny Volk, Ph.D.
Last week a
tragedy befell Russia. On September 1, terrorists seized some 1,200
hostages at a school of the North Ossetian city Beslan. Two days
later, a violent conclusion to the armed standoff between the
terrorists and federal troops resulted in nearly 1000 casualties,
with 335 dead (including nearly 200 children), over 400 wounded,
and some 200 missing. Such is the bloody end of the latest in a
series of terrorist attacks.
has suffered a profound emotional shock. The nation has gone into
mourning. The attack raises serious questions for federal and
regional authorities. But several major points are already
First, the Beslan
siege has established that terrorism is deeply entrenched in Russia
and that its networks are extensive. The capture of the North
Ossetian school is but a link in the chain of terrorist attacks
committed over the past two weeks, including a blast at a
Kashirskoye highway bus stop in Moscow, the midair bombings of two
airliners by women suicide-bombers, and another suicide bombing
beside the Rizhskaya metro stop in Moscow. It is well established
now, also, that terrorism in Russia has Chechen roots and that the
ongoing Russian-Chechen conflict is its nourishment. There is every
reason to believe that the terrorists' resources are far from
exhausted and that new attacks are in the offing.
Second, the tragic
events of the past few days have highlighted the government's and
law enforcers' utter inability to address terror. Carried away by
self-soothing pronouncements about normalizing the Chechnya
situation and by efforts to appease the Chechens ahead of the
puppet presidential elections there, the Kremlin missed (or chose
to ignore) signs of a swelling terrorist threat. By all
appearances, Russia's intelligence services seemed more concerned
with feeding information to please their superiors than piecing
together security threats. Inexcusably, the central authorities
failed to analyze militant raids in the Republic of Ingushetia and
in the Chechen city Grozny last June and August and thereby failed
to draw serious political and antiterrorist conclusions from
Third, this string
of terrorist attacks proves the corruption, if not infiltration, of
Russia's law enforcement agencies. Each of the recent attacks
demanded significant training and preparation, which could hardly
have gone unnoticed by police, security guards, and intelligence
sources. If none of these strong signals about the movement of arms
and terrorists and the construction of explosive caches reached
their destination, or if they did reach their intended ends but met
with no adequate response, terrorist collaboration-or at least some
lower treachery-within Russia's law enforcement agencies is the
hostage crisis in Beslan revealed the full extent of censorship and
self-censorship of the Russian news media, and particularly of
television, the dominant medium. During the crisis, news anchors
avoided asking provocative questions of officials and abstained
from any criticism of government agencies and the secret services.
Russian experts invited on Western news programs appeared simply
helpless, their garrulous rhetoric masking determination not to
fall on the government's bad side. As an apparent result, CNN
invited Russian experts on the air during the crisis's first day
only, opting for Western analysts thereafter.
Fifth, there are
still questions about the government's response to the siege on the
school. Who was the first to fire on hostages? Who ordered the
storming of the school? Could the huge number of casualties have
been avoided? Different government agencies are giving quite
contradictory accounts, and the public believes that the
authorities are engaged in a cover-up, hardly an unusual thing. If
commando units initiated the storming of the school, that fact
would completely discredit Putin's assurances that every possible
measure was taken to save the hostages without bloodshed.
have Russia's top government officials drawn the right conclusions
from the Beslan tragedy? Have they addressed the questions that the
Russian public wants answered? On both counts, they have not. Take
as proof Putin's address to the nation made on the day after the
storming of the school. The chief reasons for terror's recent
successes in Russia, said Putin, are the weakness of the government
and the weakness of law enforcement. But this is an insignificant
response. Throughout the five years of Putin's tenure, he has
brought unprecedented resources to the government and secret
services and returned to them many powers that had been denied
since the fall of the Soviet state. The cult of power to which
Putin is committed has been manifest in all spheres of his
restructuring of government. "Where there is power, there is no
need for intelligence" seems to dictate policy.
A lack of
intelligence capabilities, and not a lack of power, lies at the
heart of this tragedy. If one indulges wishful thinking for far too
long, as Putin did in the matter of "normalization" of the
situation in Chechnya; if one is carried away by costly nuclear
strategic programs, measuring swords against America; if one is
determined to impose his will on the former Soviet republics; and
if one then establishes stiff control over financial flows,
political parties, regional governments, and the mass media, no
capability will remain to fight terror.
It is especially
troubling that many Russians, experts at reading between the lines
of official pronouncements, heard one passage in Putin's address as
a challenge to the United States. Putin said, "Some want to tear
off a big chunk of our country. Others help them to do it. They
help because they think that Russia, as one of the greatest nuclear
powers of the world, is still a threat, and this threat has to be
raises questions that Putin has yet to answer. Whom specifically
does he have in mind? What chunk does someone want to tear off of
Russia? It may be that Putin refers to Georgia, which is forcefully
seeking reunification with its breakaway provinces of South Ossetia
and Abkhazia. And the United States assuredly has backed Georgia's
efforts. And Putin's oblique words further confirm this answer. To
whom is Russia a threat as a nuclear power? Who might wish to see
this threat eliminated? For conspiracy theorists, the United States
is again the logical answer.
anti-American spirit of Putin's pronouncements is no paranoid
fantasy. Indeed, this import of his words is widely discussed in
Moscow's salons. And while some voice their concern, others openly
What comes next?
The prospects are disquieting. The government is likely to clamp
down on society under the pretext of fighting terrorism. This will
almost certainly lead to new encroachments on basic civil freedoms.
The ethnic conflict in the North Caucasus could be exacerbated: The
Ossetians who died in Beslan are predominantly Christian, whereas
other North Caucasus nations, source of several of the Beslan
terrorists, are largely Muslim. The impact on regional stability
could be severe.
international prospects bright. In addressing the priorities of
fighting terror, Putin's speech omitted all mention of
international cooperation and the West's near-unanimous response to
Beslan. Putin seems to preclude even the idea of cooperation with
the United States in fighting terror. This unwillingness is to the
detriment of all parties, save the terrorists.
Putin has a broad
agenda of fighting terrorism that includes mobilization of public
opinion to the war on terror; restructuring the military, secret
services, and law enforcement agencies to empower them for
anti-terrorist activity; and combating corruption in all echelons
of power, especially within agencies representing the state's
Whether Putin will
succeed in these aims is an open question. Most importantly, Putin
will have to recognize and acknowledge to all Russians that the
terrorist threat stems from the Chechnya conflict and is neither
the effect of the US-NATO conspiracy nor exclusively the result of
subversive acts staged by extremist organizations like
Unless Putin is
willing to identify clearly the nature of the threat Russia faces,
as well as its actual enemies and allies, all Russia's
counterterrorism efforts will be pointless.
There is too a
role for Washington. The Bush Administration should voice its
support of Russia in its fight against terror and insist on
improving international antiterrorist cooperation, especially
regarding intelligence. Washington should also send a clear signal
to the Kremlin that only a settlement to the Chechnya conflict will
allow the country to make significant gains in combating terror.
Finally, the administration should express its concern about the
Russian government's indiscriminate encroachments on basic human
rights and freedoms in the course of putting through antiterrorist
Yevgeny Volk, Ph.D., is Coordinator of
the Heritage Foundation's Moscow Office.
The Beslan attack and Putin's response raise more questions thananswers.
Yevgeny Volk, Ph.D.
Coordinator of The Heritage Foundation's Moscow Office
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