David Miller: Facing The Facts Behind Beslan
Putin Must Face the Facts Behind Beslan
Vladimir Putin must be a very concerned man. Not only have Chechen rebels killed hundreds in the latest act of terrorism but also his self professed image as a man who can protect Russians against such an outrage has taken another blow. In the wake of the disastrous theatre siege in Moscow, last month’s car bombing in the capital and the downing of two passenger airliners, it is clear that Mr. Putin is not succeeding in his mission to provide security for his country. Even the Russian people, so often starved of the truth by the state controlled media, must becoming aware that neither their President nor their security forces are able to deal with the ongoing problem of separatist violence. So what course is open to Mr. Putin?
The terrorist action at Beslan was not the work of al-Qaeda although it has been reported that those who carried out the attack were of Islamic origin and that several were from outside of Russia and Chechnya. Any attempt by the Kremlin to link this to Osama bin-Laden is merely an attempt to mislead the Russian people. It is also an excuse for the failings of Mr. Putin’s own government and those of his predecessors to find a political solution to the crisis in the breakaway region. Chechnya has long been a problem for the Russians and one that pre-dates even Soviet times. The Chechens have never accepted Russian domination and until the mid-1990’s were kept under control through the sheer force of the Red Army and the brutal repression of its political masters. However, such force has its limits in both capability and time and as the Soviet Union disintegrated and an impoverished Russian Federation took its place it became clear that the use of such military power was no longer a sufficient way for Moscow to deal with its troublesome region.
On a military plane, the deployment of a large, cumbersome and conscript army into Chechnya was not an effective method of defeating the separatists. The tanks and heavy armour of the Red Army could not match the small and mobile insurgent bands and its defeat in the mid-1990’s illustrated that while Russian military doctrine had not evolved from its Cold War thinking, the rules and nature of warfare clearly had. Eventually the sheer weight of numbers would pay dividends yet only small ones because although the Russians captured Grozny and other towns, the countryside has remained largely in the hands of the rebels. The porous borders that surround the republic allow not only for weapons transfers to take place but also the supply of fighters from other nations and regions. It is through such channels that the fighters in Chechnya have been able to connect with other movements around the world.
However, the Russians have also failed to find a political solution while persisting with their military course. The leaders they have installed in Grozny, while considered moderates, are also viewed by the Chechen people and the separatists as puppets and have become targets along with the Russians themselves. The result is that the Chechen population has become polarised in their support or opposition to Moscow rule and the longer this process develops, the harder it will be to find a settlement to this issue. The other significant failing of the Russian governments is their lack of reconstruction for the war torn region. Much of Chechnya and its capital lie in ruins and there is an acute shortage of the basic amenities such as electricity and water. Russia’s economic woes have contributed to this situation yet their unwillingness to provide a rebuilding package for the region has not endeared them to the Chechen public. Once again, the longer this situation is allowed to continue, the harder it will be for the Putin government or those of his successors to find a solution outside of violence.
Having said this, Mr. Putin cannot allow himself, his government and his people to become hostages to violence. He must strengthen his security forces and provide them with the means of dealing effectively with any terrorist threat and stamp out the corruption that pervades the Russian political and military systems. Yet he must not simply use the war of terror as his excuse for continuing to avoid trying to find a political solution. Nor must the West encourage him to do so in order to gain his support for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or any other country that falls foul of the United States and Britain. To do so will not bring any benefits to the Chechens nor the Russians and to brush this issue under the carpet of the war on terror and al-Qaeda will only see more innocent people suffer as are those in Beslan. Mr. Putin must learn the real lessons of this tragic event.