September 06, 2004

The Beslan Tragedy and Putin's Speech

Putin's speech reacting to the senseless carnage of Beslan indicates that the tragedy, like 9/11 in the U.S., represents something of a pivot point in Russian history. To be sure, Russians are far less historically innocent than Americans given their much more brutal history through many centuries of strife. And they have been living with Chechen terror for a good while now. But, and even by harsh Russian standards, this past week has been hugely gruesome.

First, a Moscow bombing killed about 10. Soon thereafter, so-called 'black widows' (female Chechen terrorists), suicide bombed two jets killing another 90. And then, of course, the horrors of Beslan. The numbers alone shock. Likely over 500 Russians will have died in terror attacks in the space of a week. But, more than the sheer numbers, it is the death of so many score children in Beslan that has shocked Russia so deeply. And not just the Russian people. Its leaders, notably Putin, appear to view Beslan as something of an epoch-making event necessitating a materially new course of action for Russia:

As I have said on many occasions, we have faced crises, rebellions and terrorist acts many times. But what has happened now - the unprecedented crime committed by terrorists, inhuman in its cruelty - is not a challenge to the president, the Parliament or the government. This is a challenge to all of Russia, to all our people. This is an attack against all of us.

Indeed, the senselessness of the mass carnage in Beslan has led the Russian leader to speak very bluntly indeed:

There have been many tragic pages and difficult trials in the history of Russia. Today we are living in conditions formed after the disintegration of a huge, great country, the country which unfortunately turned out to be nonviable in the conditions of rapidly changing world.

Today, however, despite all difficulties, we managed to preserve the nucleus of that giant, the Soviet Union. We called the new country the Russian Federation.

We all expected changes, changes for the better, but found ourselves absolutely unprepared for much that changed in our lives. The question is why. We live in conditions of a transitional economy and a political system that do not correspond to the development of society. We live in conditions of aggravated internal conflicts and ethnic conflicts that before were harshly suppressed by the governing ideology.

We stopped paying due attention to issues of defense and security. We allowed corruption to affect the judiciary and law enforcement systems. In addition to that, our country, which once had one of the mightiest systems of protecting its borders, suddenly found itself unprotected either from West or East.

It would take many years and billions of rubles to create new, modern and truly protected borders. But even so, we could have been more effective if we had acted in timely and professional fashion. We have to admit that we failed to recognize the complexity and danger of the processes going on in our own country and the world as a whole. At any rate, we failed to react to them adequately. We demonstrated weakness, and the weak are beaten.

This extremely frank talk is quite astonishing fare coming from any leader-- especially a Russian leader accustomed more to Soviet modes of secrecy and ducking of responsibility for government failures. That said, of course, when Putin says that "we stopped paying due attention to issues of defense and security" or "we demonstrated weakness" he is in large part describing the chaotic, alcohol-laden Yelstin years. This is part of the reason that Putin talks about it taking "many years" to create secure borders, ie. he would have needed more time regardless given the lost Yeltsin years.

Still, however, this speech was an astonishing mea culpa by Russian standards. What does it all mean?

1) Russia will now look to re-assert its historic sphere of influence through the Caucasus (including, if to a lesser degree, the southern Caucasus).

One big loser will likely be new Georgian President Saakashvili. He can forget about any unfettered moves by Tbilisi to assert full Georgian control over South Ossetia. Putin will now make a bid to restore a quasi-hegemonic role through the Caucasus. This will lead to some tension with the Americans who are also vying for influence in the region--but such prospective tensions will be mitigated as Putin's moves will be pitched to Bush as necessary actions undertaken under the umbrella of the war on terror.

2) Putin will now look to spearhead a significant overhaul of Russia's intelligence services (not unlike the post 9/11 bureaucratic reorgs in the States). He will also be forced to move significantly more resources into the military/intelligence sphere--which likely means the risks of going-forward Yukos-style confiscatory actions will be increased given budgetary constraints.

3) While Putin did state that any governmental actions will remain within the confines of the Russian constitution (though it almost sounded like an afterthought in Putin's speech), you can be sure there will be additional constraints placed on civil liberties in the coming months and years. The Russian bear has been re-awoken--not only in terms of robust policing of the 'near abroad' but also in terms of promoting domestic 'cohesion':

Putin: "But what is more important is a mobilization of the nation before the general threat. Events in other countries prove that terrorists meet the most effective rebuff where they confront not only the power of the state but also an organized and united civil society." [ed. note: He's sounding like Zell Miller, no?]

4) Finally, note this part of the speech:

We cannot but see the evident: we are dealing not with separate acts of intimidation, not with individual forays of terrorists. We are dealing with the direct intervention of international terror against Russia, with total and full-scale war, which again and again is taking away the lives of our compatriots.

This is a signal to major powers that the gloves are going to come off--not in terms of Russia's prosecution of the Chechen war (the gloves have always been off there) but in terms of potential actions beyond Russia. Put differently, the mention of "international terror" signals that, much like the Americans will fight terror globally and even in preventitive fashion, so too will Russia now.

What's happening here is that, post 9/11, we see an increasing trend by which various nations seek to categorize their specific homeland security issues as part and parcel of the international war on terror. Israel has often, and quite succesfully, made the case that its security problem with groups like Hamas and Jihad Islami are directly analogous to the homeland security issues America faces with al-Qaeda. And now Russia, especially given ostensible al-Qaeda involvement in this latest brazen attack, seeks to also gain this kind of imprimatur of legitimacy in placing the conflict in Chechnya within the larger context of the global war on terror (the Indians re: Kashmir; and Chinese re: Xinjiang, do this kind of thing too).

There is a problem with all of this, of course. Each situation is materially different (though they all, of course, involve Muslims groups). While the tactics of indiscriminate terror are equally reprehensible whether done in NYC on 9/11, a Passover dinner in Haifa, or a school in North Ossetia--we need to analyze such attacks within the context of the specific dynamics at play. Put differently, the U.S. was not occupying Saudi Arabia when 15 Saudis crashed planes into the Towers (we had troops there at the invitation of the Saudi government). Contra this, the Palestinian terror groups are operating in the context of a war underway there since 1948. Similarly, Chechens and Russians have been in conflict, at least this last go-around, since the early 90s.

What's my point?

Well, it leads me to this little Matt-Glenn dust-up (or what the French might call a dialogue de sourds). Matt, clarifying his earlier post, writes:

What I was saying, in case this is for some reason genuinely unclear, is that to get Chechens to stop making war on Russia requires Russia to do something to resolve the underlying grievance -- Russia's mistreatment of Chechnya. At the same time, taking steps to resolve the underlying grievance would, under the circumstances, be just the sort of appeasement that would invite further attacks. Therefore, it's not clear what the Russian government can or should do in order to prevent future massacres like this.

A few thoughts on all this.

As I see it--there is never any justification for the purposeful slaughter of innocents--no matter how deep-seated and/or justified any group's political grievances. But, like it or not, and given the realities of asymetrical warfare and the success terrorists have had of late, these tactics are with us to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

We therefore need to a) make abundantly clear that such tactics are not, under any circumstances, acceptable to us (Glenn's point); but all the while striving to reach settlements that will help foster more peaceful conditions (Matt's point).

Let me put it differently.

Imagine an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in portions of East Jerusalem (with access to Muslim Holy sites under the aegis of Islamic authorities). Imagine further that Israel got to keep certain key settlements, certain strategic border buffer zones, and that the Palestinian state was largely de-militarized. Imagine too, and critically, that a major compensation fund were opened for '48 refugees and their descendants who can't go back to their original homes. (Please, no E-mails about my breathless naivete and the John Lennon song).

Now, most of the world would think this a pretty fair deal. Many irrendentists in Hamas and Islamic Jihad would not. But such groups would then be much more isolated then they are today. The vast majority of observers, including likely all of Europe, would feel that a decent deal had been struck. People would further recall that the U.N. authorized the creation of an Israeli state in the late '40s pursuant to real Jewish historical links to the region coupled with the grotesque crime of the Holocaust necessitating a national homeland for Jewry. In other words, history brought us to this difficult pass, a very fair deal was struck, and it's now time to move on.

Any further attacks by Islamic militants in Israel, after such a peace settlement, would be met with significantly more ire than currently (since many, like it or not, see such attacks in the context of a national liberation struggle). This increased ire would be shared amidst the vast majority of judicious governments and, yes, mainstream Islamic groups. There would no longer be any tolerance for, as it is often done by many Middle East observers, drawing distinctions between killing innocent discotequers in Tel Aviv versus killing innocent settlers in Hebron. IDF soldiers on the ground would now be patrolling internationally recognized borders rather than borders in dispute--so would not be considered 'fair' targets in the context of an independence struggle. And so on.

The effect of such a settlement would be to a) cut down Hamas and Jihad Islami's recruitment pool dramatically, b) leave said groups with no support from state actors (Syrian and Iranian support post such a settlement would largely dry up) and c), perhaps most important, lead to conditions where terror groups would meet ferocious and near unanimous condemnation across the globe if they continued to attack any targets in Israel within its '48 borders (or settlements retained as part of any deal and Jewish-controlled Jerusalem).

Ditto, of course, in Chechnya. Suppose Grozny were awarded some 'deep' autonomy where Russia merely kept certain border security/foreign policy levers. Chechens would have, let's say, their own currency, schools, municipal government, flag, and so on. Such a move would de-radicalize many Chechens just as a Palestinian state would de-radicalize many Palestinians. There would be fewer 'black widows'. Fewer thugs willing to slaughter innocent children. No, of course (like with Islamic Jihad, say) there would be absolutists who would view the Russian concessions as weak-kneed and would thus seek to inflict further terror blows to gain further concessions. But, such radicals would enjoy little support but from the most radical of terrorists (ie, the al-Qaeda theoratic barbarian crowd).

So, to wrap up. There can be no appeasement of gruesome international terror tactics. Not now, not later. But, we can't live in a bubble. These monsters who kill children in Beslan and Tel Aviv emerge from a climate of deep historical grievances, myriad outstanding claims and recriminations, long and bitter conflicts. In other words, and returning to Matt's point (if indeed this, er, is his point), we do need to work to reach negotiated settlements of the Kashmirs, Palestines, Chechnyas of the world. The sooner we can resolve those--the better to narrow down the battle to those who will never be satisfed by any reasonable concessions and attempts at rational compromise. Those, for instance, that hate the very idea of liberal democracy--particularly, its leading avatar America.

The hijackers who felled the Towers were, yes, likely motivated in part by the fact that Israel occupies the Territories, that Muslims were being killed in Chechnya, that American troops were in Saudi (or now, Iraq). But, more deeply, they hate us because of what and who we are--a hyper-modern, dynamic capitalist society that allows freedom of religion, a libertine popular culture, the free exchange of ideas. Such societies run contra the idealized visions of a utopic Islamic caliphate spanning from Andalusia to Indonesia.

Yes, we must do our part to signal to such groups that terror will never lead to achievement of their political goals. Yet, at the same time, we must be seen to be striving to resolve outstanding conflicts that help breed hatred. If nothing else, such efforts will help make smaller the recruitment pools of the terrorists.

You simply can't win the war on terror, long term, without resolving these outstanding conflicts, addressing economic development through the Middle East as well as providing alternatives to radical madrasas and such. At the same time, you need to be extremely robust in terms of cracking down on terror groups and states that symphatize with various terror organizations (as Putin put it plainly, "the weak are beaten"). It's not easy to do all this simultaneously--but we must. This is the challenge of our era. While terror has been with us for milennia--it has never had the chance to reap maximalist damage of the sort now possible via chemical or nuclear weaponry. So, no, we will not endlessly prattle on about 'root causes' and shy away from combatting international terror groups and states. But nor can we mount this campaign divorced from the realities on the ground that so often create the conditions that allow for terrorism to thrive (national humiliation, stagnant economies, corrupt authoritarian regimes, longstanding territorial conflicts).

Posted by Gregory Djerejian at September 6, 2004 10:50 AM
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