In Russia, Putin's Policies Are a Disaster

As much as she longs to avenge the killing of her husband, Taisa Satabalova needs to stay alive and look after their two small children. But her rage has not faded since he was beaten to death last May by police, according to Satabalova, in the Russian Caucasus village of Dylym, a few kilometers east of the Chechen border in neighboring Dagestan. When Marat Satabalov and two friends drove into town for bread and other items, they were accosted by two cops. A suicide bomber had just attacked a nearby police checkpoint, leaving two dead and 10 times that number injured; according to the Russian human-rights group Memorial, people in town thought Satabalov looked suspicious, with the long beard and shaven mustache he wore as a devout follower of the Salafi Muslim sect. Egged on by onlookers, the cops allegedly bludgeoned the three men with rifle butts and then hauled them to the local police station, where witnesses say townspeople gathered outside and shouted, “Beat the big beard!” Hours later, Satabalov died in the hospital. Now his wife has nothing but their two children—and a bottomless hatred. Her husband was no militant, she says: “Damn the executioners of my husband, and everybody who runs this country.”

She’s not alone in her fury. Vladimir Putin rose to power nearly a dozen years ago promising to defend Russia from secessionist Chechen terrorists. In September 1999, responding to a series of still unexplained apartment-house explosions that killed 293 people in Moscow and southern Russia, the Army rolled into the breakaway republic with overwhelming force. Thousands of people were killed, and thousands more were driven from their homes. But the terrorist threat has not disappeared, instead mutating from nationalist violence to insatiable vendettas, only worsened by a deepening descent into a holy war inspired by Al Qaeda. Government moves against suspected terrorists, sometimes justified and sometimes not, have only provoked lethal retaliation. There were 29 suicide attacks in Russia over the past 12 months; 108 Russians were killed by terrorists, compared with only nine Israelis in the same period.

As NEWSWEEK went to press, government investigators were still working to identify the suicide bomber who killed 35 people and injured 168 others at the arrivals hall of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on Monday. Still, there was little doubt that the atrocity was carried out in retaliation for Russian actions in the Caucasus—and similarly little doubt that Moscow would find targets for punishment, whether or not they were directly responsible for the airport attack. Official suspicion quickly fell on a shadowy group of militants calling themselves the Nogai Battalion, after a 14th-century Mongol khan, a convert to Islam whose warriors controlled the Caucasus and ranged as far afield as Poland and Lithuania. A woman belonging to the group was killed on Dec. 31 at a rented house when a bomb exploded prematurely. Police say it was wired to a mobile phone and theorize that it was set off by a spam SMS message from the phone company sending New Year’s greetings to its customers. Another alleged member of the group, arrested during the subsequent investigation, is said to have told police that a major attack was in the works.

Counterterrorism experts say the Nogai Battalion is only one among a whole swarm of militant splinter groups from the Caucasus, all of them sworn enemies of the Russian government. “Nobody wants to see the truth: Russia is at war,” says Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB colonel now serving as deputy head of the Russian Parliament’s security committee. “The genie is out of the bottle.” And it’s no less clear that so far the Kremlin is losing. Russia’s top intelligence officials laid out the worrisome facts for President Dmitry Medvedev at the Lubyanka headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) the day after the Domodedovo attack. Russia suffered 19 major terror attacks in 2010, up from 11 the year before. Counting only the incidents with double-digit fatalities over the previous 12 months, bombs destroyed a racetrack, a market, an oil pipeline, a cultural center, and a military base in the Russian North Caucasus. Terrorists also derailed a train between Moscow and Azerbaijan, attacked a hydroelectric-power station, launched suicide attacks (fortunately unsuccessful) against the presidents of the Russian Federation republics of In-gushetia and Chechnya, and bombed police stations on an almost weekly basis. “The terrorist threat in Russia is higher than in America,” Medvedev acknowledged in nationally televised remarks from the briefing. “Terrorism is the main threat to security of our state.”

The admission was even grimmer than people might imagine. In the wake of the September 1999 apartment-house bombings, Russian voters accepted an implicit deal with the former KGB man they quickly elected president: they would surrender many of the freedoms they had enjoyed during the chaotic Boris Yeltsin years in exchange for Putin’s protection from terrorist attacks. Confident that the state would fulfill its primary role of ensuring their safety, many Russians were only too happy to accept everything that followed: the resurrection of the Kremlin’s supremacy, the unceremonious redistribution of private wealth to government insiders, the relentless crackdown on the country’s newly independent media, and the end of local elections.

As last week’s carnage showed, the Kremlin has failed to deliver on its side of the bargain. The Kremlin’s standard line is that terrorism in Russia is no more than a manifestation of a worldwide struggle against the expansion of Islamic extremism. “It’s not possible to win the war on terrorism in the North Caucasus alone,” the Kremlin’s top Caucasus envoy, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin, told NEWSWEEK. “It is a global threat with roots not just in Russia but in the Middle East and wars all over the world.”

At best, that’s no more than a half-truth. Terrorism in Russia is homegrown, and it’s rooted in the government’s own recent mistakes. One of them was the ruthless but expedient way Moscow disrupted Chechnya’s secession movement: by arming one of the rebel groups and enabling its leaders to torture, murder, and intimidate their way to victory over its rivals, according to reports. The republic’s new rulers gained and maintained power with tactics that ranged from reportedly kidnapping suspected militants’ family members to extrajudicial executions, but the terrorist attacks didn’t stop. Instead, Islamic radicalism metastasized across the region and spilled into Russia in a succession of terrorist horrors such as the Moscow theater siege that left 174 dead in 2002 and the 2004 Beslan school massacre that cost 338 lives.

A decade ago Russia’s foes in Chechnya had a clearly defined set of goals, focused on independence. Today the enemy is a shadowy plethora of tiny Islamist groups, with some waging blood feuds and others espousing old-fashioned ethnic nationalism or pressing all manner of grievances against the Russian state. The resentments are only worsened by chronic unemployment, rampant corruption, and longstanding local tensions—Dagestan alone has more than 30 linguistically distinct ethnic groups. The result is a crazy quilt of anger—and as if those problems weren’t enough, common criminals are capitalizing on the region’s bloody chaos to advance their own interests. Evidence emerged last year that gangs in Dagestan were paying terrorists to carry out hits on their enemies among the police and to assassinate, intimidate, and extort protection money from political opponents.

Government officials never tire of playing up the rebels’ supposed links to terrorist organizations beyond Russia’s borders, and they eagerly exhibit Qaeda leaders’ occasional statements of support for the Chechen separatists. Police sources last week even described the Domodedovo bomber as having an “Arab appearance.” To be sure, Chechen militants have been training and fighting in Afghanistan for many years, and they presumably take home bombmaking techniques and guerrilla tactics they have acquired in their travels. Nevertheless, barely a handful of foreign jihadists are known to have joined the fight in the Caucasus. One was the Saudi-born rebel Chechen leader Emir Khattab, who was killed by a poisoned letter from the KGB (not yet rechristened the FSB) in 2002, and another was the Arab militant Abu Haled, who was hunted down and killed by pro-Russian militiamen in Chechnya last March. The republic’s current president, Ramzan Kadyrov, told NEWSWEEK late last year that his troops were still actively scouring the mountains for two Abu Haled associates he blames for most terrorist attacks inside Chechnya. But if there are any other foreign fighters about, they’re keeping a low profile.

In fact, the rebels’ best recruiter may be not foreign jihadists but Moscow itself. Although the late Marat Satabalov’s long-bearded friends insist they’re peaceful men, the choice they face is stark: either to remain in their villages and risk being dragged from their beds by local security services late at night to join the 2,000 or more who have been permanently “disappeared” in the past decade, or to seek refuge in the hills among the armed insurgents. “We do not believe in this country’s reforms or its good intentions, as they do not include us, true Muslims,” says a Salafi community leader in Dagestan, asking not to be further identified for safety’s sake. “Even if the entire country unites against us, we will believe in Allah.”

Many people in Khasavyurt, a small town on the border of Chechnya and Dagestan where NEWSWEEK met Satabalov’s associates, recall neighbors and family members who have gone “into the mountains,” often to escape collective punishment for attacks by others. “Medvedev promised us to investigate crimes against Muslims in Dagestan, but we are being killed in bigger numbers than before,” says Gulnara Rustamova, a human-rights worker and the sister-in-law of a wanted militant who says her life has been hell since Dagestan police named her as a potential suicide bomber and a Moscow newspaper published her photo. “By ignoring human-rights violations against Muslims, Moscow is pushing people to take up arms.” Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, a researcher for the Memorial human-rights group in Dagestan, says she knows at least 10 desperate women who have been driven to join the radicals in the past year alone.

Even then, the terrorist threat might be relatively containable if not for Russia’s wider ills. “The reason Russia is losing the war on terror is corruption,” says Elena Panfilova, director of Transparency International in Moscow. “Security systems cannot work in a country rotten with corruption.” Police at Moscow’s airports notoriously spend much of their time shaking down dark-skinned travelers for bribes instead of doing their jobs. In 2004 two female suicide bombers were detained by police at Domodedovo airport—but were released after making a payoff. The women then boarded a plane without tickets by allegedly bribing an airline employee. Ninety passengers and crew members were killed when the plane exploded. “The president relies on the decisions of corrupt bureaucrats and law-enforcement agencies,” says the Parliament security committee’s Gudkov. “The result is that terrorism has spilled from the North Caucasus and spread all across Russia. Hundreds of people die, all across the country.”

The problem is compounded by the impunity of Russia’s bureaucrats. The last time a senior official was fired for incompetence in the fight against terrorism was in 1995, after the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev seized 1,500 hostages at a hospital in the south Russian town of Budennovsk and 129 people died. Since then “the scenario for solutions is always the same,” complains Igor Bunin of Moscow’s Center for Political Technologies: “make some noise, fire a few insignificant bureaucrats, and relax until the next bombing.”

The most surprising thing in all this may be Russian voters’ failure to call their elected officials to account for the lack of security. Putin built his tough-guy image on such swaggering promises as “rubbing out the terrorists in the shithouse,” and opinion surveys regularly show that he’s more trusted on security issues than Medvedev, his handpicked successor as president. Though the failure to bring lasting peace to the Caucasus is Putin’s, it’s likely to be the more liberal Medvedev whose ratings will suffer from ongoing terrorism. “If Russia is hit with another wave of terror attacks or armed conflict, people will look to Putin,” says Alexei Grazhdankin of the Moscow-based Levada Center. “He is seen as a strong defender of the Russian state.”

Even beyond that bizarre lapse of judgment, Russians seem strikingly passive about the steady barrage of attacks, whereas Western nations would be seething with panic and blame. One reason is the very frequency of terror attacks, combined with Russia’s deep tradition of fatalism. Another reason is the state’s iron-fisted control of broadcast media. Russian television refused to break from its regular programming for coverage of the Domodedovo attack, and the eventual newscasts focused firmly on Putin and Medvedev dressing down various officials for lax security. Even foreign officials seem somehow spellbound: with Domodedevo’s shattered arrivals hall still roped off, FIFA president Sepp Blatter flew to St. Petersburg to meet with Putin and formally award Russia the job of hosting the 2018 World Cup. Blatter called Russia “the right choice” for the Cup—an assessment echoing that of the International Olympic Committee in selecting the site for the 2014 Winter Games: the Black Sea resort of Sochi, barely 300 kilometers from the North Caucasus.

Putin has built a police state that’s good at cracking down on dissent but bad at delivering security. Although last week he once again promised “the inevitable retaliation” against the Domodedovo perpetrators, a decade of failure has shown how useless violence has been against the terrorists. Domodedovo represents two of post-Soviet Russia’s proudest achievements: the country’s unprecedented prosperity and its people’s newfound freedom to travel. But last week the airport also reflected one of present-day Russia’s worst failures. Moscow’s colonial war in Chechnya has degenerated into a cycle of deadly paybacks, in which desperate terrorists seek to show Moscow what it’s like to live in a killing ground and government forces keep trying to raise the stakes in the Caucasus. No one seems able to escape the treadmill. Which means that unless the Kremlin addresses the brutality of its own local security forces and the corruption of the state’s employees, Russians can count on a long and painful future of Domodedovo-style bombings.

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