Sunday, September 19, 2004

Beslan - The Real Cause for Concern

A horrific act like the terrorists massacre at Beslan calls for either hysteria or understatement; we have had some of both and in my title at least I’m going to opt for the latter. Whether the body of this post will veer into the former, I leave to others to judge. In truth, beyond the sickening feeling occasioned by the act itself, I cannot say if I am merely concerned, afraid, or very afraid. This is the core of my fear: that the Chechen terrorists have laid a trap and Vladimir Putin is walking into it.

If the trap is sprung, it represents perhaps not a turning point in the GWOT, but certainly a serious setback. I have not yet seen any appreciation of this possibility in the press or the blogosphere, even among thoughtful and learned commentators. I hope our government understands the potential peril and can counteract it, should it eventuate. But frankly I don’t know if they do, and equally frankly I do not know how right I am. But here follows my case.

The Beslan Massacre represents a new level of terrorism, even above that of 9/11, in that it involved the deliberate slaughter of children. The level of savagery has been much commented on and many have expressed incomprehension. It has been pointed out that such an act cannot be in the best interests of the Chechen separatists [not a unified block BTW] or the Chechen people, and this is true. But unfortunately, it is all too comprehensible if one understands Russians and the goals of the Chechen terrorists.

Taking these points in reverse order, the goals of the Chechen terrorists are very simply to drive the Russians [and probably their sympathizers] out of Chechnya and ultimately to destroy Russian influence over the Caucasus. It has also been suggested that they wish to unify all the North Caucasus — the purported mastermind of Beslan, Shamil Basayev, has long been a proponent of this. To what extent these goals are congruent with the wishes of the people of Chechnya and the North Caucasus, and indeed, to whether or not they would be good for them does not disturb Basayev’s thinking.

I will interject here that it is impossible to condone or downplay either Basayev’s terrorism or the Russian atrocities that he says are to blame for it. The Russians have behaved deplorably in Chechnya for centuries but this does not justify acts like Beslan. Unfortunately, that distinction is neither here nor there; the Chechen terrorists have opened a new chapter in the tragedy and are waiting for the Russians to play their historical part.

Basayev may or may not be involved with Beslan — statements from the Russian FSB [reported by InterFax and ITAR-TASS] linking him to the massacre should not be relied upon; nor should reported "testimony" by a surviving terrorist or even the recent email — but it certainly sounds like him. Basayev has made something of a habit of threatening Russia with an unrestricted terrorist war. He has taken responsibility for introducing suicide bombing into the Chechen terrorist arsenal, he has ties to al-Qaida, and he is almost certainly the one playing host to the Wahhabi fundamentalists from abroad. Finally, I expect he is only one in Chechnya with the sheer guts to plan such a thing an pull it off [that is not a compliment].

Basayev [accepting that it was him] understands the Russians and his methods are the result of cold calculation. He understands that Russia’s great weakness is it’s fixation on strength. But Russia is not, and has never been, strong. To be strong requires embracing the rule of Law, a concept that is wholly foreign to Russia and is still not taken root there. In Russia, what passes for strength is simple brutality.

Russia’s stature in its own eyes and in those of its neighbors depends entirely on how brutal Russia can be and is willing to be. In the words of the song, Russia must be the "baddest man in the whole downtown." Being "second baddest" is to be nothing.

Shamil Basayev has made it his mission to show that the Russian are no longer the "baddest" people around. He has escalated his terrorism to send the message that he is more brutal, vicious, and ruthless than they are and he expects them to challenge him on this. That is, he is trying to goad the Russian into committing a series of atrocities that will strengthen his terrorist movement, even if it kills him, and weaken Russia internationally. Yet if the Russians fail to respond, their hold over Chechnya, perhaps the whole North Caucasus, will be threatened. This is the nature of Basayev’s trap.

To Basayev, this looks like a win-win situation. Furthermore, he probably perceives it as low risk and he is probably right. The fact of the matter is that while Russia still has an international reputation as a "major power", it is militarily impotent. Russia simply cannot respond in the measured effective lethal way that the US can. Their military is ill-equipped, badly trained, and often poorly led. Russian options to respond with force are limited, and all of them are likely to result in large numbers of innocent casualties.

Nor do they work. Some have gone so far as to suggest that "If it takes out wiping out an entire county to get Shamil, then the county should be wiped out, as long as they're sure they're going to get him." I understand the sentiment, but it is unlikely to be an acceptable price for dispatching a regional terrorist and more to the point, it could easily fail. The Russians have taken a fair whack at wiping out Chechnya on several occasions during their history, without notable success. They took a shot at Afghanistan as well, and we all recall how that turned out. Russia simply doesn’t have the capacity to "wipe out" countries, unless it resorts to nuclear weapons and maybe not even then. But an attempt to do so would play straight into Basayev’s hands [to say nothing of al-Qaida].

If Russia can’t effectively attack Basayev, neither can it defend itself against him [or anyone else]. It is hard to imagine a more perfect terrorist target than Russia. Corruption and the pervasive presence of organized crime mean that almost anything is for sale. Corrupt Russian military officers sell their unit’s supplies and weapons, even their labor. They are not picky about their customers, which have included the Russian Mafia, Islamist terrorists, and Chechen fighters. The security forces, having little else, sell themselves. Large numbers of them moonlight, so the distinction between a cop, a Mafia enforcer, and gun runner for terrorists is largely one of time of day.

Even if corruption could be rooted out of the security forces; if they could be better equipped and trained [and I have little knowledge of how much Putin has been able to improve these things in the past 2 years, but I expect not much] they would still have major problems, because they are badly out-numbered. The inability of the Russian state to provide security has led to a huge private security industry: many if not most sizeable corporations and [especially] financial institutions maintain their own security forces. So do the various organized crime groups. These forces are, in effect, private militias. They can supply cover, intelligence, supplies and weapons, and security to terrorist operations and many will for the right price.

So it is hard for me to see Putin coming up with an effective response to Beslan, his options being so few. Yet he seems intent on walking into the trap. He has stated that the attack was a result of weakness, and one his generals has stated that the Russian military is ready to launch pre-emptive strikes at terrorist bases anywhere in the world [as if they could]. This rhetoric must be music to Chechen terrorist [and probably al-Qaida] ears because they understand that any such action and its consequences will now reflect on the GWOT and most particularly on the US.
This is new development that either the Russians don’t recognize or [more likely] fail to care about. Russia was able to treat its depredations in Chechnya in 1994-96 and it’s second incursion in 1999 as internal matters. The US disapproved of Russian methods in both cases but was not directly involved. We could and did tut-tut and no one suffered but the Chechen and Russian victims.

But now the case is altered. Russia has managed to internationalize the Chechen situation and the US has officially recognized it as such. By linking the Chechen situation to the GWOT, Russia has made the US de facto responsible for it. Bloody and irresponsible Russian actions against the Chechen terrorists will now be done "in our name".

However, restraining the Russians risks "breaking" the global anti-terror coalition and handing the terrorists a major psychological victory. Thus, by attacking Russia so viciously, Basayev and the Chechen terrorists [and by extension al-Qaida] have a chance to deflect the focus of the GWOT from fighting the US to fighting the inept Russian third-stringers. This is bad because they’ve already beaten the Russians once or, if you count the fact that some of the same people were in Afghanistan, twice.

To put it more succinctly, Basayev’s trap — and his gamble — involves making Russian both a victim to their own bad impulses and a shield to the Chechen terrorists; they expect to gain their ends through an unrestricted terror campaign against Russia while counting on the Russians, who still want to treat Chechnya as an internal matter, to prevent the US from taking any truly effective action. As much as that sickens me, I don’t think it’s a bad bet.

If Russia were the Philippines, or Ivory Coast, or Bhutan, none of this would matter so much. But Russia is still regarded as a major power and an important ally in the GWOT, however wrongly. A Russian defeat at the hands of the Chechen terrorists, either by overreaction or retreat, could repair the fortunes of the Islamic terrorist movement in terms of funding, manpower, and influence that have been badly disrupted by the Bush Administration over the last 3 years; it could even advance them.

As bad as this assessment sounds, the situation may not be unsalvageable. When I said the Russians managed to link the Chechen situation to the GWOT, I did not mean to imply that it was not, but that it was in a special way. It is thus because however much he consorts with, accepts aid from, and co-operates with al-Qaida, Basayev is not an al-Qaida stooge or a the vanguard of an international Islamist movement. He is a Chechen, first a foremost, and his interest in the broader issues of international Islamist revolution is wholly subordinate to determination to establish a unified Islamic government over the North Caucasus.

This means Basayev and his followers are more like the Taliban than al-Qaida; their aspirations are regional, not international. Like the Taliban, they are not popular in the most of the North Caucasus and while Basayev was regarded as a national hero in Chechnya after the first Chechen War, his star may have faded somewhat in recent years. They may not be sorry to see him go, and indeed some recent elections are said to have given an indication of this.

Like Afghanistan under the Taliban, Chechnya is a failed lawless "state" that harbors terrorism because of its chaos, not because the people widely support terrorism. It is therefore likely to be amendable to a similar solution: an operation that eliminates the terrorist elements specifically followed by a security operation of long duration that bring some sense of stability and helps rebuild the country.

The main problem of course is that the Russians are incapable of either of these operations, and likely to be unwilling to allow the US to conduct them, or to do anything that to strongly implies Chechen independence. Further, I doubt Putin’s motives. Putin has moved more and more toward autocratic rule, basically keeping only the pretense of democracy, and now with his suggestions that regional governors be appointed, not elected, he seems bent on dispensing with the pretense too. So I think it is a fair question whether Putin is more interested in combating terrorism or reestablishing Soviet-style autocratic rule in Russia; perhaps he is interested in both equally.

If the Russians hold the their canon of strength, or if Putin is more interested on using terrorism to forward his own agenda than on combating it, this problem will be insuperable. But if Putin can be made to see how untenable his position would become if he follows his predilections and can be offered some face-saving arrangement, he may allow himself to be guided. I think it will take a miracle of diplomacy on the part of the US [that is, Pres. Bush] and some great good luck.


Blogger M. Simon said...

The obvious Russian riposte is alliance with America.

He can cite the Great Patriotic War.

1:48 PM  
Blogger M. Simon said...

I think where your analysis fails is that you don't think Putin will act in his real self interest. That he will go for body count instead of specific bodies.

The Russians may be brutal but they are not stupid.

The clue here is that he says his reach will be global. The Russians haven't had global reach since the collapse of the USSR. They are a great regional power like China.

So how does Russia get a global reach under the current circumstances? Not with divisions. Covert action and alliances. Now he is already having interchanges with Israel. As you well know as much as we value the Israelis and they us they don't even sneeze without at least giving the US of A prior warnings. And if after they take action we really really don't like it they reverse course. Think of the China/AWACS deal.

I'm betting it is a done deal.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Would appreciate a comment on this if you have the time.



It looks as if there is more evidence, as if it were needed, of the international nature of the Islamic extreme.

“A member of the group responsible for the Beslan school massacre last month is a British citizen who attended the infamous Finsbury Park mosque in north London, The Observer can reveal. Two other members of the group, loyal to Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, are also believed to have been active in the UK until less than three years ago. They are suspected of taking part in the raid on the school in which 300 people, half of them children, died.”

7:19 PM  

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