January 25, 2011 1:56 pm

Russia has no good terror options

Russia’s leadership seems to be reacting relatively calmly to Tuesday’s bombing of Domodedovo airport. This is welcome, but it is also a necessity. It seems terrible to admit, but terrorist attacks of this kind are something Russia, like India, is simply going to have to live with in future – and to which it is vital not to overreact.

Russia is a very large state with large and (in part) discontented Muslim minorities. Its security services will find it difficult to prevent such attacks. As President Dmitry Medvedev has charged, security at Domodedovo should doubtless have been tighter – but in the last resort, that will only lead the terrorists to choose “soft targets”, such as the metro or buses.

Western intelligence agencies and police have had some success in preventing successful terrorist attacks – but by identifying and arresting terrorist groups before they can carry out their attacks, not via higher security for targets themselves. They can also control access to the material and technology necessary to make bombs.

These strategies are much more difficult in Russia, especially given parts of the North Caucasus are no-go areas for the police. There is also a large, if diminished, black market in former Soviet weaponry available to aspirant terrorists.

Back in the 1990s it also was possible for some to believe that Russia could free itself of its terror threat by giving Chechnya its independence, but this has long ceased to be the case. But since then Islamist extremism has spread far beyond Chechnya, and it is now closely linked to international Islamist terrorist groups.

The restrained response from Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, suggests the Kremlin may have learnt that overreaction is likely to deepen such group’s sense of injustice. Yet if terrorist attacks in Russia cannot be prevented altogether, they can be limited and contained.

To do so, however, two changes are required, both of which are horrendously difficult. The first is an improvement in the governments and economies of Russia’s North Caucasus autonomous republics. This, however, would require the replacement of much of the existing leadership of the region – creating an awkward choice between corrupt incumbents or rule by Moscow. The latter is as likely to increase local discontent as to reduce it.

Second, especially in the North Caucasus but also across Russia more widely, the quality of local police needs urgent reform. In the North Caucasus, their corruption, brutality and incompetence only help to fuel Islamist extremism. Ethnic Russians, too, and especially youths, are fed up with their behaviour.

Behind this lies a challenge to Mr Putin himself. There is a tension between his moderation following this tragedy and his main appeal to the population – which in part rests on his claim to have conducted a tough, effective security campaign in the North Caucasus.

Yet while it is true that he defeated separatist rebellion in Chechnya, it is more and more obvious that he will not be able to stop major terrorism. This may diminish his prestige vis a vis his colleague and potential rival Mr Medvedev. In this, however, can take some small solace, given Mr Medvedev doesn’t have any answers either.

The writer is a professor in the War Studies Department fo King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. As a correspondent for The Times (London) he covered the Caucasian wars of the 1990s and is author of Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (1998)

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