Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Is Moscow Losing the War on Terror in the Caucasus?

Introduced by Vladimir Frolov
Russia Profile
October 29, 2010

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Edward Lozansky

Last week three armed terrorists stormed the Chechen Republic’s Parliament in Grozny and blew themselves up, just as members of Parliament were gathering for a regular legislative session. Three people died in the attack, which, ironically, coincided with a visit to Grozny by Russia’s Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, who described the Chechen capital as a safe city. Is the insurgency growing and spreading? What drives the insurgency? Is it radical Islam or nationalist separatism?


Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov rushed to talk down the macabre symbolism of the terrorist attack against a secure government building not far from his residence, saying that there were no more than 50 or 70 active armed fighters left in Chechnya and that they would all have been rounded up a long time ago, had it not been for the military and financial assistance they were receiving from across the border in Georgia.

Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Federal Investigative Committee, recently said that instability in the Caucasus is more like a spreading insurgency that the federal authorities have a hard time fighting. He admitted that Russian federal forces and local Interior Ministry personnel are suffering daily casualties of five to seven men.

Terrorist attacks in the region have been multiplying, while growing in complexity and audacity. Civilian and military casualties are increasing. In late August a terrorist driving a car bomb blew up a Russian military camp in Dagestan. Another car bomb destroyed a busy marketplace in Nalchik in September. Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria have turned into regular battlegrounds where federal special forces conduct daily raids against terrorists, who in turn strike against military and law enforcement targets with increasing frequency.

President Medvedev himself admitted that he views the continuing instability in the North Caucasus as the gravest threat facing Russia. Medvedev has sought to fight this threat by putting the North Caucasus republics within the new federal district and launching a massive development program supervised by the new presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Alexander Khlopinin, the former governor of the Krasnoyarsk Region. So far there has been little to show for it.
Is Moscow losing the war on terror in the Caucasus? Is the insurgency growing and spreading? What drives the insurgency? Is it radical Islam or nationalist separatism? Is it drawing on outside support, particularly from Arab states and Georgia? How effective are the Kremlin’s policies to deal with the insurgency? Is Medvedev’s emphasis on economic reconstruction and social modernization a better response to instability in the regions than Putin’s heavy-handed approach? Is the insurgency a real threat to Russia’s statehood or its political stability? How could it affect Medvedev’s program of modernization? Or the presidential succession in 2012?

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow and World Russia Forum in Washington, DC:

The question of whether Moscow is losing the war on terror in the Caucasus appears to have been prompted by the rising number of acts of terrorism and the number of fatalities in these acts in the North Caucasus republics, especially in Dagestan and, recently, in Kabardino-Balkaria. Some of these acts, like the recent suicide attack by three jihadists on the Chechen Parliament, were quite spectacular.

The short answer to the above question is that Moscow cannot lose the war on terror in the North Caucasus because that war simply cannot be won by the opposing side. In Chechnya, the mujahedin, the separatists, the Islamists, or whatever else you might call them, once did win a war against the federal center, and what happened? The separatists could not build a proper state and were only able to exist a few short years as a bandit republic, an assemblage of warlords with their private, clan-based armies engaged in various criminal activities such as hostage-taking, slave-trading, production of counterfeit money, and so on. They were aided and abetted by radical Islamists in other Muslim countries and those forces that viewed instability in the Caucasus as a lever to keep Russia in its place, and still they failed.

As in the case of so many other Muslim regions, the main fact about the North Caucasus (in fact, the Caucasus as a whole) is encapsulated in the well-known phrase: it’s the economy, stupid. The resources of these areas simply cannot sustain their rapidly multiplying population. The elites and the peoples of the North Caucasus republics know only too well that they just cannot exist without fat (up to 70 to 80 percent of their budgets) subsidies from the federal center, and without much of their population living on remittances sent by relatives earning money in Russia proper.

So all talk about Moscow winning or losing the war on terror in the North Caucasus republics merely obfuscates the real problem. The federal center and, much more so, the local political establishments, supported by the majority of their people, are facing the North Caucasus section of a global jihad, a worldwide radical Islamist movement intent on destroying Western, Russian and Chinese human civilization – any kind that does not recognize Sharia Law as the one and only Allah-given law for all men.

Like all ideologically driven movements, such as communism, this one is doomed to failure. As the erstwhile victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan showed, it promises mankind nothing but a return to a new Dark Age, darker than any other.
However, that is no reason to underestimate the danger to civilization it poses. The most threatening feature of jihad is precisely its global, international nature, which calls for a joint international response to the threat. And currently there is a big gap in the international response: there is practically no joining of forces between Russia and the West, and the United States in particular, in the fight against jihadists.

Worse than that, until the coming to power of the Barack Obama administration there were loud voices in the United States accusing Russia of neo-imperialism, of suppressing liberation movements in the North Caucasus, notably in Chechnya. We are still witnessing remnants of that Cold War mentality in certain highly visible cases, like the refusal of the United Kingdom (and, most recently, Poland) to extradite Akhmed Zakayev, a prominent Chechen terrorist with an Interpol arrest warrant on his head. The United States does nothing to make its dependent, Georgia, stop the passage of financial aid from Arab countries and directly from Al-Qaeda to the jihadists in the North Caucasus.

The logic of the current situation could not be plainer. Al-Qaeda’s head, Osama bin Laden, has been declared the top enemy of the United States. While Russia made no such declaration, it is fighting on its own territory the same enemy that the United States and its allies are fighting in Afghanistan and the world over. No petty political considerations should stand in the way of Russia and the West joining forces and fighting the common enemy side by side.

As many observers admit, there is a danger that after the November elections, when the Republicans will possibly take over, or at least make substantial gains in Congress, Obama’s administration will be forced to adjust its policy of rapprochement with Russia. Already hotheads in Washington are screaming loudly that it is the right time to revise Washington’s reset policy.

However, I believe that the majority of GOP Members of Congress will dismiss this advice, since they clearly understand that in these difficult times it is, first of all, in America’s interest to have Russia on our side of the barricades.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Australia:

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord held diplomatic or foreign policy positions under Louis XVI, in a series of French Revolutionary governments under Napoleon, I, Louis VIII, Charles X and Louis-Phillip. He once remarked (in French) that the art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence. Unfortunately, while there is a surplus of pundits and polemicists in Moscow, there is a noticeable deficit of statesmen or even specialists who have a vision of possible alternative futures for the North Caucasus region, which most people would regard as desirable. More than a dozen conflict situations exist, yet there is no consensus among the Russian leadership that the time to rethink existing policy is long overdue.

Russia is bogged down in a cycle of violence and repression. Its current efforts to reassert control over the area accomplishes little other than the conflicts’ intensification. The Russian government is not engaged in a war against terrorism: it is engaged in struggle with a small percentage of the numerous different indigenous populations. One wonders what benefits Russia really gains at the end of the day.

Some Russian specialists on ethnic conflict in Russia believe that perpetual conflict is a natural consequence of Stalin-era policies to divide the Soviet Union’s different national groups to exacerbate tensions. In theory, as a result, the central government and the local governments would have an opportunity to act as the mediator and indispensible guarantor of ethnic peace. This is not the situation today. I fear that if the present trends continue, the outcome will produce a lose-lose situation. It is just a matter of time until the tipping point is reached, the day when that segment of the local population allied to the Russian central government feels that it is necessary to move into the Russian heartland or risk death.

The threat to the Russian state and inhabitants is seized upon by the authorities to justify a national security state, where any form of public opposition is viewed as potentially destabilizing. The commission of war crimes and repression against the local population robs the Russian government of moral authority, so that many of its actions abroad seem hypocritical. The Russian authorities have for years sought to cloak themselves in the war against foreign Islamic extremists and Al-Qaeda, even though they have failed to produce any evidence other than ones that seem tenuous at best.

The Russian government and its proxies are fighting a war against separatists and others in Karachayevo-Cherkassia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. I can think of no area where the Russian government’s failures have been so costly.

Numerous individuals have noted the similarity between Moscow’s policy toward the North Caucasus and France toward Algeria in the 1950s to 1960s. Zbigniew Brezinski and others have all traced the parallels in the factors contributing to this situation, in what can easily understood in terms of conflict between a metropolitan state and its colony. Unfortunately, Putin’s rise to power was in large part due to his ability to win the support of those who favored a military solution to the Chechen conflict. He lacks Charles de Gaulle’s stature, nuanced understanding of the relationship between domestic and foreign policy, and appreciation that his country must permit its colony to exercise its right to self-determination or risk bleeding itself to death.

The Russian government’s refusal to reconcile itself makes inevitable its departure from the burden of its colonial past, but only after paying a huge price. With the Sochi Olympic Games approaching there is increased pressure for all parties involved to reassess their positions. If those opposing the Russian government’s continued rule in their part of the North Caucasus were to attack athletes or spectators at the Olympic Games, it would rally a public relations and human disaster that would lead to more violence and intransigence. A strike somewhere else in Russia, perhaps made easier because Russian security personnel would be focused in the games, would have less of a global sensationalist impact, but also would harm the separatists’ agenda.

It is easy to be pessimistic over the possibility of finding a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the region. There are so many parties involved and so much blood already spilled. Atrocities have been committed on all sides. I would think the easy course for Russia to take is to withdraw and undertake steps to secure Russia’s international borders and invite the international community to organize plebiscites in those political subdivisions where it appears that a large share of the inhabitants want the Russians to go home, even if some of the ethnic Russians living there can trace their roots back more than 200 years. Indeed it is possible that the transfer from minority to majority rule in South Africa offers the best roadmap for the region – not ideal, but better.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Firstly, one must take issue with the designation “war on terror.” This coinage has been borrowed from U.S. electoral propaganda practices, where the electorate desires and receives simplistic, sound-bite level slogans, designed to evoke conditional voting reflexes – much like the ringing of dinner bells resulted in canine salivation in Doctor Pavlov’s laboratory. Or like the crowd responses to sloganeering so impressively imagined by George Orwell. American political discourse knows the war on poverty, war on drugs, war on crime, war on cancer and now a war on terror, simultaneous with the other wars. Such sloganeering demeans the noble concepts of democracy by reducing a fundamentally complex issue to a simple, idiot-proof capsule. It is a pernicious and underhanded insult to the intellect of voting citizens in any society.

Why is the above observation important? Because simplistic labels imply simple solutions, thus misleading society into an automatic expectation of a straightforward and complete resolution of the problem. The invention of a war against terror generates a social climate that expects a victory and also dignifies the enemy with a status of a soldier. From such inherent contradictions stems the extensive debate about the applicability of the Geneva conventions on warfare and the status of terrorists captured by national defense forces.

Terror is a concept and a process. One does not make war on concepts. And the premise of losing a war on a concept or winning a war on a concept is fundamentally illogical.

Terror is a social phenomenon and it requires societal responses. These responses are usually multiple and complex: the responses are preventive, punitive, corrective and restorative to the victims of terror.

Is Russia losing a war on terror in the Caucasus? How will one know when Russia has lost such a war? The terrorists’ aims are remarkably vague and irrational, if one examines them closer. Will the unlikely achievement of such vague and contradictory goals mean that terror won and Russia lost the war? Conversely, how can one tell conclusively that Russia has won the war on terror?

It is more accurate to propose that Russia is responding to terrorist attacks which may continue for quite some time, and that Russia’s resources and unalterable imperative to respond will in due course succeed. The fight may be quite long in duration: Spain has been responding to ETA terror for decades, and the United Kingdom has dealt with IRA terror for a very long time as well. No one questions or supposes that either Spain or the UK, or Israel, or the United States will lose their respective wars on terror.

Just before the current wave of terrorist attacks, Russian security forces destroyed many terrorist cells and killed scores of terrorists. In effect, it is considered that the current increase in terrorism in the Caucasus is partly due to the need of terrorists to announce to their constituencies, paymasters and targets that they remain a force in the theatre. Because terrorism is asymmetric, a small number of fanatics can cause big damage but with limited lasting effect.

The Russians do have a major valid complaint against Western media. Practically never are the terrorists in the Caucasus correctly designated as such. In the West they are called insurgents or (earlier) freedom fighters. This bias and blatant lying undermine the credibility of Western commentators among Russian citizens. External material support of terrorists is also evident and the two factors combined do not enhance the West’s reputation in Russia.

Russia is not fighting a war on terror in the Caucasus. It is responding to criminal mayhem. There are no alternatives, and ultimately the response will prevail.

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