Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Implications of Russia's Caucasus Troubles

Russia's outward and aggressive international posturing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus may be calming a bit... at least for a bit.

A two-bomb terrorist attack hit Moscow's subways a week ago, killing over 30, and injuring well over a hundred more. The attack was sophisticated in its timing and its execution, catching Russian security services completely off-guard; they could only clean up after the disaster.

Other attacks hit Dagestan, a restive region in Russia where a large chunk of the population wants independence.

Before I continue, I will say that I'm not 100% sure of the culprits--many signs point to separatists in the Caucasus, but a few rumors and reports indicate that Russian intelligence services may have been involved. A human rights lawyer/writer claimed that, after the attack, a man stepped out of the shadows, yelled, "you're supposed to be dead!" and hit her upon the head, before fleeing. That said, this may simply be a furious opposition writer taking an opportunity to blame the state for human rights abuses. Anyway, I digress.

Assuming this was a terrorist act, a few questions obviously arise:
1) Why now, in particular?
2) Did they have outside help?

The first question may be an exercise left to the reader(perhaps you've read some news I haven't). The separatist regions are intermittently active, but their actions usually prompt a relatively brutal Russian response--in this case, Medvedev has said that Russian authorities need to show "more cruelty" in the Russian Caucasus regions in order to root out and break these terrorists. The Russian response is furious and, indeed, it is uniting the Russian people behind the state (in a time when popular opinion was starting to go against Putin and Medvedev). These attacks are unlikely to seriously further any bid for independence, but many militant groups are often prone to high-risk operations in hopes of creating a "quagmire"-style situation that ultimately weakens the central state's control over the area (even if there is not a formal relinquishing). Russia had left much of its separatist republics alone for some time in the 1990s, but it must be obvious to the Caucasus separatists that this is not the Russia of the 1990s. I therefore see dubious benefit to the separatists coming from this attack.

The second question runs the risk of turning us into 9/11-style conspiracy theorists. At the end of the day, militants might not need much in the way of help to make these well-timed attacks. Months of planning, combined with easily-accessed arms and bomb-making materials from a number of central Asian former Soviet states, further coupled with a rather profound lack of communications infrastructure (great for internal spying and policing) would give them the time and freedom they potentially needed to pull the attack off.

That said, it would not be at all shocking if they got help. If they did get help, the question is, from whom did they get help? Do Russian security services have an interest (especially in the light of declining popularity for United Russia) to try to boost poll numbers, unite the populous, or potentially win themselves more internal security powers? Do outside powers (like the CIA, the Georgians, or some sort of threatened Eastern Europeans) have an interest in forcing Russia's eyes inwards, in order to free up "space" to perform their own moves close to the Russian periphery? Both ideas seem dubious, but not completely out of the question.

That said, how will Russia react? Is Russia's response to domestic terror going to be an insular one, where public opinion and Kremlin leadership alike decide to put a delay on expanding the sphere of influence? Or is the rise in unity and state popularity (which is almost inevitable, frankly) going to give the Putin/Medvedev duo a freer hand with which to rattle sabres near Russia's periphery?

Ultimately, it depends on how quickly the Russians are to "get over" the tragedy. If they recover quickly, a legacy of higher polling numbers and "unity" will allow the Kremlin to get gutsy. If the pain should last, an outward stance would appear to be an ignoring of the real problems in Russia's periphery, and create a sense of the Kremlin being "out of touch" with the common Russian.

Sadly, I don't think I have an answer on this one.
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