A suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport last month has reminded Russians, and the world, of the country’s continuing vulnerability to terrorist attacks. As in the past, the Russian authorities blamed Islamic extremists for the violence and promised retaliation. That reaction is certain to intensify the cycle of violence that has left a bloody trail of victims in its wake. Islamic extremists may have worn the explosives that killed 35 people and injured 168 others, but Russian terrorism cannot be blamed on militant Islam alone.
Sadly, Russians are not strangers to domestic terrorism. There were 29 suicide attacks in Russia in 2010; 19 terrorist attacks were “major,” an increase from 10 the year before. In 2010, 108 Russians were killed by terrorists. In a national speech, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called terrorism “the main threat to security of our state.”
That is a remarkable admission for the head of a government who took power on the back of a promise to protect the country from that very threat and whose government has consolidated a domestic security apparatus — with all the resulting sacrifices of personal liberty — on the basis of that pledge. Then President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin first took office vowing to crush Chechen secessionists who had demanded independence and allegedly blown up Moscow apartment houses, killing 293 people, to make good on that demand. (That “allegedly” is important: Not only have the perpetrators not been caught, but some suspect the Russian security forces planted the bombs to provide a pretext for the Russian show of force in Chechnya that followed.)
The invasion was by all accounts brutal, with indiscriminate violence killing thousands of people and driving thousands more from their homes. The entire region was politicized and victimized, providing deep reserves of angry and desperate people ready to turn to extremism and violence. Experts believe the entire Caucasus region is today dotted with militant groups, all ready to fight Moscow — and each other — to the death. There are at least four insurgencies spread across the region in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria and there are almost daily reports of bombings, killings and attacks.
The Russian government blames Islamic extremism, insisting that the local variant is a branch of a global war waged by Muslim militants. Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin argues that violence in the Caucasus is part of “a global threat with roots not just in Russia but in the Middle East and wars all over the world.” In keeping with that theme, police sources reported the Domodedovo bomber had an “Arab appearance.”
Most experts disagree with that diagnosis. They believe Moscow is also at fault. Not only has it failed to respond to the aspirations of a region that has battled Russian authorities for two centuries in a struggle for independence, but its techniques have exacerbated the problem. It has embraced a scorched earth policy that terrorizes and radicalizes innocents. It has backed one faction over others, turning a blind eye to its acts and atrocities, ranging from kidnappings to extrajudicial executions, a dangerous tactic in a region that embraces the blood feud.
The impact of those blunders has been magnified by other mistakes. The corruption that is rampant in Russia cripples the security forces: Officers are often more focused on shakedowns than pat downs. Reportedly, in 2004 two suicide bombers were stopped by the police at the airport and then released after making a payoff. Nearly 100 people died when the plane they boarded — by bribing an airline official to let them on without tickets — exploded.
Equally important is a culture of impunity within the security forces. As this group has risen to power in tandem with Mr. Putin, its most distinguished alumnus, its members have managed to avoid being held responsible for the failure to protect the country. No senior official has been fired for the country’s record against terrorism since 1995.
None of this is intended to excuse the horrific acts of terrorism that have occurred. There is no justifying such violence against innocent civilians. The organizers and perpetrators of these acts are terrorists and should be punished as such. But there will be no respite from this violent extremism until Russia abandons the indifference, incompetence and insolence that characterize Moscow’s response to the Caucasus.
The anger and enmity that has been sowed in the region may now be too deep to uproot by any measure short of independence. But Moscow must try if it has any hope of succeeding in the war against terrorism. It must create a rule of law in the region, even if that means disavowing current rulers. It must stop turning a blind eye to the corruption and violence that are the handmaidens of rule in the region.
To its credit Moscow has spent billions of rubles in the region in an attempt to provide economic opportunity and “drain the swamp” of resentment. The endemic corruption has ensured that those funds have been wasted and the effort has failed. As the events last month have demonstrated, the price of that failure continues to be far too high.
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