A wave of terrorist bombings in Moscow is pushing Russia once again toward war. No government can permit its citizens to be terrorized, and the scale of the recent attacks suggests that a formidable enemy is at work. Still, Moscow’s response to the bombings seems ill-planned and desperate. Just as troubling is the tacit approval that the rest of the world is giving Russia as it prepares for another military campaign. Another disastrous incursion into the Caucasus could have consequences that reverberate far beyond that troubled region.
A series of explosions during the last month killed 292 people, brought fear into the lives of ordinary Russians and sparked a security crackdown across the country. Although the identity of the perpetrators is unknown, the Russian government assumes that the terrorists are Islamic militants tied to separatist guerrillas in the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. The security forces have focused on the “dark-skinned” people of the Caucasus, detaining thousands while arresting only a fraction of that number. The government justifies its actions by claiming that 16 explosions have been prevented and 521 tons of explosives seized. Few Russians are concerned about the manifest injustice of subjecting thousands of people to search and arrest on the basis of skin color alone.
The other component of the government’s response — a military attack on the Chechen Republic — is unlikely to be as “successful.” Russia already fought a three-year war in the republic, which ended in 1996 with a negotiated settlement that gave Chechnya de facto independence. That war caused 80,000 deaths, highlighted the Russian military’s impotence and the savage tactics stained Russia’s international image. The Russian armed forces are still smarting from the humiliation and eager to take revenge.
The new campaign against Chechnya may provide a psychological boost to Russians, but it is unlikely to deliver any relief from terrorism. The previous war was fought to a stalemate, and Russia’s underpaid, ill-equipped recruits were no match for the determined and surprisingly well-armed Chechen rebels. That is why the latest campaign has begun with a punishing air offensive against the republic. Six days of airstrikes have destroyed strategic targets, killed over 300 people and reportedly created over 80,000 refugees.
The campaign bears a striking resemblance to the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia. That is ironic since Russia protested the NATO attacks as a result of fears that a precedent was being set and the West would be encouraged to intervene in the Caucasus if Moscow were to crack down.
Unfortunately for Moscow, bombing is unlikely to succeed — even if the Chechens are the terrorists. Chechnya is a fractured country, where various warlords compete with the Chechen government for control of territory. Bombing may destroy national assets — and further impoverish the country — but rebel groups will only be driven into the mountains, where they will be even harder to dislodge. All the while, their grievances will mount, as will those of the 19 million Muslims spread throughout the Russian Federation and sympathizers in the rest of the Muslim world.
Bombing is a desperate act. It underscores the failures of the Russian government: a failure to protect its people, a failure of the intelligence and security forces to combat terror, and a failure to learn lessons from the last disastrous intervention in Chechnya. Russia is concerned that home-grown Islamic militants have joined forces with foreign terrorists such as Mr. Osama bin Laden. Bombing gives them common cause and may encourage the spread of militancy throughout the country.
Just as worrisome is the inclination of other governments to turn a blind eye to Russian policy. The chief fault in Western policy toward Russia since the end of the Cold War has been a willingness to support individuals — usually Mr. Yeltsin — instead of principles and institutions. The result has been the undermining of those very principles, and with them the future of the country.
Make no mistake: Terrorism must be condemned and battled. But, as terrorism expert Brian Jenkins points out in his article on this page, we must resist the temptation to suspend civil liberties and human rights. Overriding democratic processes only gives terrorists a victory by other means. The Russian people deserve sympathy and support. The individuals behind this terror campaign must be identified and stopped. But the weapons leveled against them must be well-targeted. Indiscriminate violence will only lead to another Chechen debacle, one that will be felt in Russia and elsewhere.
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