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Terrorism’s Other Front: Russia’s Festering Caucasus Problem

September 18, 2012

David Wemer ’14

Old rivalries die hard. It has been a full two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, yet the United States and the Russian Federation have still failed to warm up to each other. From the crisis in Syria and the European Missile Shield to Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe,” prospects for Russian-American cooperation seem grim. This strained relationship is frustrating because Russia and the United States face many of the same grave challenges such as climate change, economic uncertainty and nuclear non-proliferation.

Terrorism, specifically from Islamic radicals, is among these shared problems, but for Russia it is increasingly becoming a matter of domestic security. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the northern regions of the Caucasus Mountains, such as Chechnya and Ingushetia, have been marked by bloody conflicts between Russian central authorities and Islamic separatists. The unrest sparked two full scale wars, with Russian soldiers and tanks fighting insurgents in street battles and mountain clashes. The last of these wars in Chechnya ended in 2009, seemingly extinguishing the threat in the North Caucasus but leaving hundreds of thousands dead, injured and displaced.

Following the cessation of open conflict, however, the situation has taken a different form. With its top leaders and organization gone, Islamic militants have begun to look more like their counterparts in Palestine and Afghanistan. Unlike the older Chechen veterans, the ranks of the radical Islamic groups are filled with young men trained in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, bringing with them both radically conservative Wahhabism and new terrorist tactics with which to fight the Russians. Suicide bombings and assassinations have replaced traditional ambushes and street fighting. On August 19, a suicide bomber killed seven people attending the funeral of a police officer who had been gunned down by militants the day before. Ten days later, another suicide bomber killed a Sufi scholar in Dagestan. On September 5, six police officers were killed in an ambush in Ingushetia. But one larger issue is that not only is the use of these tactics increasing, but the resulting instability is threatening other regions of Russia.

In July, terrorists in the region of Tatarstan nearly killed a chief mufti with a car bomb and gunned down another prominent Islamic leader. Both men were fighting the spread of Wahhabism and militant Islam in Tatarstan, and their targeting for attack demonstrates both the capacity of this new wave of Islamic militants and the extent to which the problem is growing. Tatarstan, home to roughly four million people in the heartland of Russia, has been relatively stable and tranquil in comparison to its southern neighbors. Now, the growing threat in the region as more citizens fall prey to terrorists has awakened central authorities, and the Russian government is already formulating a response. These militants do not fight like their Chechen predecessors, however, and the Russians will find themselves in a different sort of fight; a fight that may include Russian civilians as targets. Russia is only a year and a half past a devastating suicide bombing in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport which killed thirty-five people. Unless the situation is resolved, similar attacks may become more commonplace.

In this situation, where does the United States fit in? Why should we care about Russia’s terrorism problem when we have our own, especially if Russia is our “number one geopolitical foe?” Unlike during the Cold War years, current events in the northern Caucasus regions will affect the entire world, including the United States. In 2014, the resort town of Sochi will hold the Winter Olympics and four years later it will host matches for the 2018 World Cup. These two events will bring thousands of the world’s athletes and tens of thousands of fans to southern Russia, including many Americans. But Sochi is only a nine hour drive from Chechnya. For militants who have demonstrated that they are willing and eager to kill civilians to further their cause, an attack on the first Olympics hosted by the Russian Federation would be the ultimate prize. A breach in security would be catastrophic not just for Russia, but for the entire world. Islamic militants trained in Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the Salafist tradition will target not only Russian civilians and athletes, but American and Western athletes and fans as well.

But beyond this obvious security threat, there is also an opportunity in Russia’s evolving terrorism problem. In the last four years, President Obama has found it increasingly difficult to pursue his much-touted “reset” with Russia, especially with the return to power of Vladimir Putin. This should come as no surprise, given that there has been no real incentive for the Russians to pursue closer relations with the United States. The United States has asked Russia to sacrifice in a number of areas, from human rights in the Middle East to missile defense in Europe. What can the United States offer Russia in return? The simple sharing of counter-terrorist techniques and equipment could solve both the security threat in 2014 and help bring the “reset” to fruition. The United States and other Western countries have unique experience in counter-terrorism and should readily make that experience and material available to the Russians.

Some may scoff at the idea of giving the Russians arms or intelligence, but at the end of the day it is our citizens we will be protecting and a dangerous source of terrorism we will be fighting. As the events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown, radical militancy has the ability to spring up in places where we may least expect it. Thousands of Americans live and work in Russia and thousands more will travel there in the coming years. We have a responsibility to protect them, and in doing so we may achieve something larger. It has been a full twenty years since the end of the Cold War, but our relationship with its Russian successor has been continually defined by that conflict. A common sense gesture of cooperation on the front of counter-terrorism has the possibility of opening many new doors for the United States and Russia, and may be the first step in “resetting” this important relationship.

 

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