Russia's Secret War in the Caucasus

The suicide bomber who detonated a truck packed with at least half a ton of explosives in Nazran, Ingushetia, Monday morning destroyed a five-story police station, killed 20 people and injured 138 more. But the bomber did more: he demolished the credibility of the Kremlin's Caucasus policy. For nearly a decade, Moscow has relied on appointing local strongmen to rule the turbulent North Caucasus, allowing the locally recruited security forces of Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia to use whatever dirty tactics against opponents they choose. The result, documented in detail by the few human-rights monitors still brave enough to work in the region, has been an ongoing bloodbath of abductions, torture, extrajudicial executions, arrests of rebels' family members, burnings of houses in reprisal for attacks—all in the name of securing stability in the Caucasus. But a dramatic upsurge in violence this summer, of which Monday's bomb attack was the latest and worst, has been a brutal illustration of just how big a failure that policy has become. Instead of bringing peace to the Caucasus, the Kremlin-sanctioned death squads have only made the region's rebels—a motley mixture of radical Islamists and tribal enemies of the ruling cliques—angrier, and more deadly.

Terrorist bomb blasts began the reign of Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 1999 in the wake of still-unsolved bomb attacks on apartment buildings in Moscow and in South Russia. His successor, Russian Pres. Dmitry Medvedev, now faces an agonizing dilemma: he must be seen to get tough on the rebels, even though brutal tactics such as those used by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov plainly aren't working. When the Dagestani minister of interior affairs—the greatest authority on anti-terror operations in Dagestan—was killed in June, the president flew to Makhachkala, the republic's capital, to declare that the murder was "a cynical challenge to the authorities, to the state," and that authorities "must do everything to quickly track down the criminals." But just a few hours after his visit two more police officers were shot dead by rebels, and last month there were at least 17 police officers killed in Dagestan, according to police professional unions in Makhachkala. "This is an escalating, unofficial Russian war that the Kremlin lost control of," says Magomed Shamilov, the head of the Dagestani police union.

The anarchy in Russia's southern republics seems to grow with every passing day, with news of suicide bombings, abductions, and assassinations piling up on Russian newswires. Among them: the attempted assassination of the Ingushetian president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov; a suicide bombing in the center of Grozny that killed four high-ranking police officials; and the murder of prominent human-rights defender Natalya Estimirova in Chechnya. In July, a bomb blew up the house of the mayor of Magas, the capital of Ingushetia. Last week, the director of a children's charity and her husband were abducted in the middle of the day from their office in Grozny. A few hours later their bodies were found in the trunk of their car. In Ingushetia, the minister of construction was shot by men wearing masks who burst into his office at the ministry on Wednesday. The next day, attacks killed four police officers and seven women employees of a public bathhouse in Dagestan. Four other police officers were killed in Chechnya the same day. Two more police officers were killed in Dagestan last Friday. On Monday, five ethnic-Russian members of a family were killed in their home in Chechnya. In Dagestan, police are blown up, shot on the side of the road, and killed in their beds, as part of an ethnic battle that pits the police, mostly from the majority Avar ethnic group, against the insurgent members of Dagestan's 33 other nationalities.

Human-rights activists want the Kremlin to do more. In the wake of Monday's blast, Medvedev sacked Ingushetia's interior minister, Ruslan Meiriyev, saying the attack had been preventable and that local police had warning of the attack. But that will do little to fix the region's deep political dysfunction, corruption and apparently endless cycles of violence. Many blame Moscow's policies of favoring one ruling ethnic group or clan for their exclusion from society. "Moscow pushes people to take weapons and leave for the woods and mountains," says human-rights activist Gulnara Rustamova.

If even local police feel desperate and abandoned, its small wonder, then, that increasing numbers of ordinary people are resorting to increasingly desperate measures to bring attention to their complaints. One night earlier this month, the main regional highway, known as Caucasus 1, was turned into a wall of fire by protesters. The road outside of Kaspiysk, Dagestan's second-biggest town, was blocked by a line of burning tires, fire, and black smoke. Crowds of angry young men piled on more tires, backing up trucks for miles, to protest plans to disconnect the town's electricity because of unpaid debts. The demonstrators complained that the funds to pay the electricity bills had been stolen by local bureaucrats—mostly Avars allied with the Moscow-backed local government. And adding to ethnic tensions, a sustained government campaign of harassment, illegal arrest, and torture of overtly religious Dagestanis has also done much to bolster support for radical Islamic groups who hide in the remote mountainous regions of the republic and are thought to be behind many of recent attacks on police.

So far, the State's only response has been to apply more violence to try to root out militants and intimidate their families into giving away their whereabouts. But as long as the region is ruled by small, corrupt cliques, there's every chance that the deep resentment of local authority will only worsen—and with it tensions along the innumerable ethnic and religious fissures that divide the North Caucasus. The Kremlin chose to turn a blind eye to their proteges' corruption and indiscriminate use of violence in return for their imposing a kind of brutal peace on the region. But the recent upsurge of violence shows that the rulers of Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia cannot keep their side of the bargain—and that its time for the Kremlin to rethink its failed policies.