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WebMemo #564 on Russia

September 9, 2004

Terrorist and Authoritarian Threats in Russia

By

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.

 

Russian society 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 clear.

 

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 them.

 

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 likely suspect.

 

Fourth, 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.

 

More importantly, 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 eliminated."

 

This passage 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.

 

But the 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 gloat.

 

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.

 

Nor are 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 might.

 

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 Al-Qaeda.

 

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 measures.

 

Yevgeny Volk, Ph.D., is Coordinator of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow Office.

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