Between Scylla and Charybdis

The devastating attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport demonstrates the hopeless situation of ordinary Russians who are caught in an escalating conflict between terrorists and a Russian government that is doing everything possible to fill the terrorists’ ranks.

There was no early claim of responsibility for the Domodedovo attack which left 35 dead and 41 critically wounded. There is little doubt, however, that the bombing was the work of radical Islamists who have promised to create an Islamic state including all of the North Caucasus.

In the days ahead, the Russian regime will treat the Domodedovo attack as an example of the need for the West to give it its support. What it will seek to hide, however, is its own role in creating a terrorist threat in the North Caucasus. There were moderate alternatives in the North Caucasus region but they were systematically destroyed.

The first invasion of Chechnya in 1994 was authorized by President Yeltsin, who refused to negotiate with Chechen separatists although their maximum demands amounted to a form of autonomy. The resulting war led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

The second invasion of Chechnya came in 1999 after a series of mysterious bombings of four Russian apartment buildings that left 300 dead. The bombings were attributed to the Chechens. But when a fifth bomb was discovered in the basement of a building in the city of Ryazan, the persons who planted it turned out to be not Chechens but agents of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

The elected president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, ruled during the period between the two wars. He was opposed to terrorism. In March, 2005, he proclaimed a unilateral cease fire in an effort to induce Moscow to agree to talks. The Russians, however, refused to negotiate and Maskhadov was killed weeks later.

Maskhadov was succeeded by Doka Umarov, one of his top commanders. Like Maskhadov, Umarov rejected terrorism and specifically condemned the Beslan school hostage-taking in September 2004. In the meantime, however, Russia installed Ramzan Kadyrov, a former resistance fighter, as president of Chechnya and he consolidated his grip on power with the help of a reign of terror.

By 2007, the insurgency in Chechnya had been largely suppressed. Umarov, under pressure from Islamic radicals who were growing in strength, abandoned the drive for Chechen independence and called for a North Caucasus Islamic state. The drive for independence from Russia, once confined to Chechnya, spread out to embrace the entire region. Russia reacted by installing corrupt local leaders whose murderous tactics fueled the insurgency.

Ostensibly in response to Russian atrocities, Umarov turned to terror. In a video address, he warned that “blood will not only flow in our cities and villages” but also in the streets of Russia. He took credit for the bombing of the Nevsky Express Moscow to St. Petersburg express train in November, 2009 in which 27 were killed and for the attack in March, 2010 by two female suicide bombers on Moscow metro stations that killed 38. He said that the attacks on the Moscow metro were revenge for the killing by security forces of 18 villagers near the Chechen-Ingush border. There were reports that all of them were innocent civilians.

In 2000, Putin promised to “destroy the terrorists in their outhouses.” After the attacks on the Moscow metro, he said that he would reach the terrorists “in their sewers.” Despite these and other bloodcurdling threats, the danger from terrorism in Russia has only grown, from 130 terrorist acts in 2000 to more than 750 today. On May 13, 2010, Medvedev demanded the destruction of terrorists who resisted while being arrested. In light of previous Russian practice, this order will almost lead to the murder of innocent civilians.

The North Caucasus is a time bomb for Russia. Its future can only be decided on the basis of self determination. In the meantime, Russia’s attempt to impose its will will be futile and ordinary Russians will pay the price for their country’s penchant for trying to resolve all questions by force.

David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His next book on Russia’s Communist past will be published this fall by Yale University Press.

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