Russia: Sharing Some History With Boston


April 26, 2013: The April 15th terrorist in the United States (Boston) has made the world more aware of Russia’s terrorism problem in the Caucasus. The two Boston terrorists (the Tsarnaev brothers) were Chechens from Dagestan. Russia had alerted the American FBI and CIA about the elder brother in 2011. Russia had no hard evidence but their intelligence had picked up some data on the elder Tsarnaev brother’s interest in Islamic radicalism. In the United States the FBI and CIA are being grilled over why this vague tip did not result in the April 15 attack being prevented. One defense that will probably be heard (more likely from the CIA, which has long monitored the Caucasus) is that there are a lot Islamic radical Chechens these days, but few of them proceed to become Islamic terrorists and fewer still attempt to make attacks outside Russia. That has given Russia a lot of problems in the last two decades.

Despite this formidable terrorist threat, the security forces (local and national police plus specialized counter-terror forces from the police and military) have managed to reduce the terrorism in the Caucasus but not eliminate it. Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia are still full of nationalist and Islamic radical gangs that pursue criminal activities (theft, kidnapping, extortion) as well as frequent attacks on government officials. Local resentment of Russian rule goes back to the 19th century, when Russia conquered the Caucasus, in part to halt the raids by criminal gangs into Russia. It's an old problem made worse by the current popularity of Islamic terrorism among young Moslem men. The violence emanating from the Caucasus has long generated an animosity towards Caucasians (especially the Moslem ones) by most Russians. Refugees from the Caucasus violence often face violence and discrimination when they settle in other parts of Russia.

The current situation developed when the Chechens tried, throughout the 1990s, to maintain their independence from Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet Union dissolving in 1991. But the Chechens could not govern themselves, and Chechnya became a hideout for numerous criminal gangs. These guys started a kidnapping, robbery, and extortion crime wave all over southern Russia. In 1999, Russia, now led by Vladimir Putin, invaded, to reassert its authority and reduce the Chechen criminality in southern Russia and the Caucasus. Several years of bloody fighting followed, until a majority of the population agreed to shut down the gangsters. For the last few years Chechnya has been at peace, at least by local standards.

Many of the criminals and Islamic militants fled to neighboring "republics" (as the semi-autonomous ethnic enclaves in Russia are called), mainly Ingushetia to the west and Dagestan to the east. Dagestan was able to handle the influx of Chechen gunmen, at least at first. But in Ingushetia, the violence kept getting worse. Some of the violence was just criminal activity because tiny (population half a million) Ingushetia has an unemployment rate of over 50 percent. But there are also Islamic radicals who used to operate in Chechnya. And then there are a lot of guns in the hands of the population, so it's often difficult to tell who shot who and why.

The Russian government blames a lot of the unrest on local officials who, while pro-Russian (and dominated by a former KGB officials) are generally inept and corrupt. As these things go, the national government won't intervene unless the gangs based in Ingushetia began raiding into southern Russia. Corruption and feuds (between clans and ethnic groups) causes a lot of the violence, which is organized and focused via gangs of Islamic radicals. Most of the 4.2 million people in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan are Moslem and never much liked Russians. Although the Russians have reduced the violence over the last decade, it persists, much to the embarrassment of the Russian government. This volatile mixing of organized Russians and unruly Caucasus minorities has been a problem for centuries (ever since the Russian empire reached the Caucasus two centuries ago). Many of the largely Moslem Caucasian tribes saw it as their right to raid the Christian Russians (who had a lot of stuff to steal). The Russians fought back, escalating to Cossacks and the army and violence has persisted ever since. During World War II the Russians mistrusted the Chechens so much that they moved most of the Chechen population to Central Asia in 1944 (killing many in the process). Over the next two decades those exiles were allowed back to the Caucasus but both Russians and Chechens have not forgotten. That a couple of Chechens would carry out an attack in the United States (killing a woman, a child, and a student from China) does not surprise a lot of Russians and disturbs a lot of Chechens who would like to move away from their outlaw reputation.

What's surprising is that there aren't more attacks by Russian Moslems. Some 14 percent of Russians are Moslem, but only some of those in the Caucasus (where a few percent of the Russian population lives) are really into Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Relations between Slav Russians and the various ancient peoples of the Caucasus (which includes Christians, Georgians, and Armenians, as well as Moslem Chechens and dozens of other distinct ethnic groups) have been bad for centuries. But as the Russians discovered in the 1990s, even allowing Chechens to be independent did not solve the problem.

April 25, 2013: For the first time a Russian Air Force pilot flew the new Russian stealth fighter, the PAK-FA (comparable to the American F-22). All previous flights had been handled by test pilots. The PAK-FA is a joint development deal with India and is expected to start production in three years. Six years ago India agreed to partner with Russia in the development and production of a “Fifth Generation Fighter.” The Russian-Indian effort is meant to build a fighter that can give the American F-22 some competition. The PAK-FA looks a lot like the F-22. The 37 ton PAK-FA is about the same weight as the F-22 and has a similar shape.

April 24, 2013: In the south (Dagestan) police killed two Islamic terrorists.

April 23, 2013: The Russian Navy held several days of training exercises in the Caspian Sea. Some twenty patrol boats, larger warships, and support vessels were involved. This was not just to improve skills but to send a message to Iran that Russia was still the primary naval power in the Caspian. This message was also to calm Russian ally Azerbaijan, which Iranian officials recently announced ought to be annexed by Iran.

April 22, 2013: Islamic terror groups in the Caucasus announced that they had nothing to do with two Chechens carrying out a terror attack in the United States last week. The policy of Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus has been to concentrate on attacking Russia. But individual terrorists from the Caucasus have showed up in many other areas (Pakistan and Syria in particular).

April 18, 2013: President Putin threatened to fire several of his department ministers if they did not find ways to carry out social spending increases he had ordered. Letting incidents like this go public, and actually carrying out increases in social spending, is one way Putin maintains his high poll numbers. Putin also denied creating a new version of the Soviet era dictatorship, but more Russians continue to openly complain about the growing use of police state tactics.

April 17, 2013: A former Russian Army lieutenant was sentenced to three years imprisonment for corruption while he was a company commander two years ago. The bad lieutenant took bribes and extorted money from his subordinates. While extreme, this sort of thing is not unusual in the Russian military.

April 15, 2013: Russia has begun its semi-annual conscription for the armed forces. This time the military needs to obtain 153,000 recruits. Because of a shrinking population the government was forced to allow fewer exemptions (especially for students). Avoiding conscription has turned into a big business with brokers available to advise parents on whom to bribe and how much to offer to keep their son out of uniform.




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