On Point: Russia's Czar Wars Aren't Over


by Austin Bay
March 30, 2010

Monday's attacks on Moscow's subwaysprovide an odious reminder of the Russian empire's post-Cold War instabilityand the Russian government's severe internal challenges.

As this column goes to press, noorganization has claimed responsibility for the attacks that left 39 dead andscores wounded, though Russian commentators and international analysts suspectIslamist-inspired separatists in the northern Caucasus region planned andexecuted the terror strikes.

Russian security forces are fightingguerrilla and terrorist cells based in troubled Caucasus political fragmentslike Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya. Islamist separatist groups from theseareas have used "the woman-delivered weapon" in previous attacks onRussian targets, and surveillance imagery, survivor testimony and forensicevidence confirm female suicide bombers conducted the subway attacks.

Last month, Doku Umarov, a seniorChechen separatist leader, promised to wage war in Russia's cities. His threat,as provided by Russian media, is chilling -- and charged with a politicalmessage: "Blood will no longer be limited to our cities and towns. The waris coming to their cities."

Umarov refers to himself as the emir ofa future Islamist "Caucasus Emirate" ruled by sharia law (with him asthe chief interpreter, of course). His rhetoric and self-proclaimed titlesuggestively connect to Osama bin Laden's goal of establishing a "globalcaliphate" after infidel powers are defeated.

Umarov's recent threat is an old threatrevived, and Russian security officials fear the subway bombings could signal anew wave of terror attacks targeting major Russian cities. In September 1999,Moscow suffered a series of bomb attacks on residential buildings. In February2004, terrorists bombed a Moscow subway and murdered 40 people. Other attacksfollowed, with the Beslan school massacre (September 2004) the most tragic.Islamist separatists proclaimed they were "waging war" in Russia'sheartland and hinterland.

In November 2009, operatives connectedto Umarov blew up a train on the Moscow-St. Petersburg route. Killing Russiansmay have been the immediate goal, but that attack demonstrated the separatistsalso pursue economic and military objectives. The attack sent the message thatRussia's extended transportation networks remain vulnerable.

Russia's vast size makes patrollingrail lines difficult. Pipelines (that transport gas and oil) are also easilydisrupted. Pipeline attacks have immediate economic consequences, within Russiaand for Russia's European trading partners. Protecting rail and pipelinesrequires additional personnel and equipment, and Russian security forces claimthey are already stretched thin.

Sowing fear among Russian citizensobviously has political goals, but a reinvigorated Chechen insurgency is adirect challenge to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Everyone knows Putinis Russia's real leader, not President Dmitri Medvedev. For the past two years,Putin has been perfecting the role of "backroom czar."

Putin played a central role in Russia'sresponse to the Chechen Islamists' attacks on Dagestan in 1999 and the terrorassaults on Moscow. By spring of 2000, Russian security forces had takenChechnya's capital, Grozny. Russian troops pursued rebel factions into thehills. Putin became a Russian nationalist hero, a "hard man" in themold of leaders long respected in Russia. This "Second Chechen War"went far better than the Russians' war in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996.

When he became president, Putinpromised the Russian people security -- after all, he had demonstrated hisprowess and iron will in the Caucasus wars. He demanded a quid pro quo: TheRussian people would have to accept less political freedom.

The wars, however, didn't end. Theysimmered. The authoritative Russian website Caucausian Knot(www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.rucalculated that Russian internal security forceskilled 436 "suspected militants" in Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnyain 2009.

One of Monday's subway bombs struckMoscow's Lubyanka stop, near the headquarters of the Russian Federal SecurityService (FSB). The FSB is the Cold War's KGB, renamed and ever so slightlyreborn. Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent. The Moscow Times, however, warnedthat the attack on Lubyanka was more than iconic or a tweak of Putin. FSBcommandos recently killed a senior Islamist rebel.

What will Putin's government do? Newelections are set for 2012. Putin may want to run for president again. Expectan even bloodier Third Chechen War. 

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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