29 March 2010
James Sherr

James Sherr

Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme


Perspective can be the greatest casualty of a grotesque and barbarous terrorist attack, and terrorists invariably hope that will be the case. Contrary to the steely and self-righteous assurances of Russia's power structures, the country's strategy in the North Caucasus has been failing, and the point has been made several times by President Medvedev himself.

Russia is not short of experts who, since the mid-90s, have warned that Moscow's solution to the 'Chechen cancer' was more likely to metastasize than cure it. Two Chechen wars (1994-6 and 1999-2004) and the brutalities of 'normalisation' under Chechnya's now virtually autonomous president, Ramzan Kadyrov, have transformed Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria into alienated, radicalised, desolate and increasingly ungovernable places.

Moreover, Russia's power structures hoped that the August 2008 war with Georgia would confirm the homespun axiom that dominance of the now independent states of the South Caucasus would ensure dominance of the North Caucasus, which forms a juridical part of Russia. Yet it has secured dominance in neither place.

In recent years, Russia has been no stranger to gruesome attacks, including several on the Moscow metro itself. In the weeks ahead, it will be tempting to conclude that the situation is no worse than it has been up to now.

But the 29 March attack raises at least two ominous questions: is it coincidental that an attack on a metro station adjacent to the once notorious headquarters of the security services has followed the November 2009 attack on the prestigious Nevsky Express, which is widely utilised by members of the business and political elite? Those behind Monday's attack might well wish to demonstrate that the Russian state is not only powerless to defend ordinary citizens but also 'its own' and itself.

The second question is whether such attacks will be intensified ahead of the 2012 presidential elections. Further attacks on symbols of state power could erode the prestige of those who rode to power in 1999 on the back of equally traumatic outrages and have staked everything on the restoration of Russia's integrity and strength.

Nevertheless, it would be excessive to conclude that the balance has swung in favour of the millenarian fanatics of the North Caucasus, who to this date constitute only a portion of those actively opposing the aims and methods of Moscow. Whilst some militants have goals that, in principle at least, lend themselves to negotiation, suicide bombers and those who command them are not interested in changing the policy of their opponent. They are only interested in his destruction. This week's atrocity - which killed dozens rather than thousands - not only illustrates the abilities of such people, but their limitations.

A successful counter-terrorist strategy will not only 'destroy' terrorists (in the words of Medvedev and Putin) but ensure that others have no incentive to replace them. First, instead of intensifying what they are doing, the authorities need to reconsider it. That reconsideration will not take place until independent experts and respected local figures are brought into the process. Second, the stifling and siloed 'vertical' of Russian power needs to give way to a horizontal, joined-up approach facilitating the sharing of information between those who have it and those who need it. Third, representative institutions need to be rebuilt in communities blighted by insurrection and war. Alas, there is little sign of movement in these directions today.

Also see:

After the Moscow Bombs: Bronwen Maddox Debates Russia's Future with James Sherr
The Times online, 30 March 2010

Russian Rulers: Don't Hold Your Breath
The World Today, Alexandra Kim, April 2010