At Large

Moscow’s Terrorism Tribulations

President Medvedev is responding with greater nuance than his predecessor, Prime Minister Putin.

By 4.9.10

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Moscow's pundits were close to unanimous in their approval of the timing of Prime Minister Putin's trip to Venezuela -- but their comments had nothing to do with Russia's Latin America diplomacy. It was generally conceded that with Putin out of town the more moderate-mannered President Dmitry Medvedev would be able to quiet the fierce public reaction to the Moscow metro station terrorist bombings that killed forty people and injured over one hundred.

Vladimir Putin had served notice that retribution for this horrendous act would be swift and severe. Immediately after the carnage Putin said those behind the suicide bombings would be "scraped from the sewers." Medvedev had busied himself with ceremonial flower laying at the underground station sites after swiftly coordinating the law enforcement response for which his office is responsible.

While this was going on, rumors flew regarding the nature of the political and security crackdown that was expected to occur. It really didn't take the multiple bomb blasts that occurred afterward in Russia's regions of Dagistan and Ingushetia or the admission of responsibility by the Chechen rebel leader, Doku Umarov, to convince the Russian security services -- and the public -- that Islamist Chechens were behind these tragedies.

It also took very little time for Moscow's conspiracy theorists to suggest possible linkage with the security services that had been looking for means to reinstate stiffer controls on all forms of political dissidence. From Medvedev's standpoint, it was definitely a good time for his tough guy prime minister to be out of town. The president's office lobbied hard for the cooler headed approach.

It appears Vladimir Putin views the terrorist movement in the Caucasus as far more immediately dangerous to Russian national stability than does his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev. Putin has strong support in his views from his old friends in the security service and special forces -- the siloviki. While not denying the danger from Islamist terrorism, Medvedev takes a longer perspective on what has been a dissidence problem based on Caucasian independence conflicts going back to Peter the Great.

Some say Medvedev simply is involved in an exercise of wishful thinking. That characterization may indeed be true, but it does not negate the fact that the instrument called the Caucasian Emirate, formed in 2007 by Doku Umarov, has created an increasingly broad range partisan and terrorist alliance of Chechen independence radicals and religiously driven Islamists.

Medvedev's supporters point to the analysis of the Chechen writer, Edibek Khasmagomadov, that the concept of the emirate is "more of a brand than an organization" that has attracted an affiliation of individual fighting groups. Umarov announced in a secretly produced video that his aim is to create an Islamic caliphate out of the North Caucasus, freeing it of Russian domination. To battle such an amorphous, yet well-themed, movement, it is suggested that President Medvedev believes a more sophisticated approach is required -- as opposed to the heavy-handed counteraction embodied in Putin's statements and style.

This is the point where the two ruling factions of Putin and Medvedev may veer out of balance. A perception on the part of the Russian public that there is a growing reach of terrorism conceivably can create a call for the more aggressive Mr. Putin to be returned to a more clearly dominant position in governance. Vladimir Putin's personal experience and extensive ties to his old command in the FSB places him in the operationally logical role for combating terrorism to a greater extent than does Medvedev's presidential legal authority over law enforcement agencies.

Funding of the various groups under the heading of the Caucasian Emirate is said by press-quoted Russian security sources to emanate from "abroad." These sources are consistently unclear as to the actual location of "abroad." The impression has been given, however, that in addition to obvious Islamist financing from the Middle East, anti-Russian intelligence operations are also involved. These conspiratorial musings never go beyond carefully guarded generalizations, but they nonetheless exist and are oft-repeated within the mystery-loving Moscow political set.

Public support in Russia for the security services tends to rise commensurate with the level of terrorist violence. At the same time, the government finds it politically easier to take actions that previously would have been considered excessive by home-grown commentators. Western observers, who are always alert to any revival of oppressive measures similar to the previous communist regime, are entranced by the internecine security debate.

Not illogically, the entire country -- including the terrorists, themselves -- awaits Vladimir Putin's considered reaction. That, in itself, is a clue to the fragility of Russia's current domestic political situation.


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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.