The mass murder of innocent civilians in the Moscow metro suicide bombings has again brought into focus the evil of radical Islamism and the imperative of civilized people everywhere to stop it. As clear-cut a case of Islamist barbarism as it is, though, it is difficult to make sense of the spiraling violence in Russia without reference to Vladimir Putin’s disastrous anti-terrorism policies.
Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, President Putin from the very beginning of his tenure in the Kremlin showed himself completely unwilling to consider any negotiated settlement with the Chechens and pursued a strictly military solution and a puppet regime in Grozny instead — an attitude characterized by his vulgar promise to the resistance to “rub them out in the latrine.” He had no interest in exploring let alone exploiting the deep gulf between the resistance’s hard-line, Saudi-supported Islamists and its secular nationalists, who had little in common except their vehement dislike of Moscow’s heavy-handed domination. And so he doggedly pursued the physical destruction of the Chechen rebels by methods that were often indistinguishable from the terrorism he vowed to extirpate.
A decisive watershed was reached in 2005, when the leader of the resistance and former democratically elected Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov was hunted down and killed by the Russians. Maskhadov was the last Chechen leader who advocated negotiating an autonomous status for his nation within Russia, advised against spreading the war outside of the region, and, most importantly, was willing to stand up to the jihadists in the movement. Had Putin listened at the time, the conflict might have taken a different turn.
As it happened, Maskhadov’s successors, Abdul-Halim Sadulayev (killed in 2006) and Doku Umarov, took the resistance in a decidedly jihadist direction and gradually transformed what was a national Chechen insurgency into a broader Islamist movement aimed at nothing less than the establishment of a “Caucasus Emirate” — a sharia-ruled Islamic state in all of the North Caucasus — through uncompromising war against the Russian infidels. To underscore the murderous jihadist nature of this transformation: Umarov reinstituted a suicide bombers’ “martyrs battalion” and promised to wreak terrorist havoc in Russia proper. With the bombing of the Moscow–St. Petersburg express train last November and the metro attacks now, he has kept his word. More is sure to come.
In the meantime, Putin has made little progress, despite claiming to have completely defeated the resistance a year ago. Instead, he has successfully used the war to bolster his nearly dictatorial powers in Moscow, destroy what was left of Russian democracy, and emasculate the political opposition through draconian “anti-terrorism” laws.
In the Caucasus itself, the brutal policies of Putin and his local henchmen have managed to totally alienate most of those that had not already been killed or driven into exile, and have given a huge boost to the jihadists at the expense of the centuries-old moderate Sufi Islam of the region. His failure has come at a staggering cost. The region’s economy has essentially collapsed, with unemployment rates of up to 80 percent, complete dependency on Moscow subsidies for bare economic survival, and “total corruption” as the rule, according to the Kremlin itself.
More significant still for the long-term, a decade of Putin has achieved something that seventy years of Soviet Communist rule were unable to do: generate a nearly universal animus for Russia and the Russians among the locals. The result has been an ongoing mass exodus of ethnic Russians from the region bringing their share of the population from more than a quarter in the 1980s to less than 10 percent today. Indeed, places like Chechnia, Ingushetia, and Dagestan seem to be on their way to becoming Russian-free, except for the few in mixed marriages. Given this reality on the ground, it is difficult to imagine Moscow holding onto these territories except through an unsustainable military occupation.
Years from now, when historians try to determine who lost the North Caucasus for Russia, Vladimir Putin and his latrine strategy will surely be at the top of the list.
– Alex Alexiev is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.