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Analysis: Russia Girds Itself For War

  • Robert Coalson

Investigators suspect terrorism was the cause of the 24 August air crashes As Russia continues to reel from an unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks that apparently included the 24 August downing of two civilian airliners and the ongoing takeover of a school in North Ossetia, it increasingly seems that the country is on the edge of a transformation similar to that experienced by the United States following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks there.

Among the many dramatic statements made over the last week in the heat of the unfolding events, perhaps the strongest came from Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on 1 September. "War has been declared, a war in which the enemy is invisible and there is no front line," Ivanov said in a statement that was repeatedly broadcast on the national television channels. He said that the 31 August suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station "was not the first and not the last terrorist" act that Russia will see in this now-open war.

State Duma Speaker and former Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov echoed Ivanov's statements in remarks the same day. "It is time for all those who tried to romanticize acts of madness, who try to present acts of terrorism as a lonely struggle for independence and justice, to come to the only proper conclusion: this is war," Gryzlov said, according to "Vremya novostei" on 2 September. He added that the war is being waged by well-financed and well-organized groups with international ties. "We are obliged to undertake measures commensurate with this situation," Gryzlov added. He said that the front line in this war "passes through the entire country" and the new situation "demands particular vigilance from everyone."

Gryzlov also said that new legislative initiatives in keeping with the new, wartime situation are being drafted and will be presented to the Duma in short order. He added that many of these initiatives are being drafted by law-enforcement and security agencies themselves, including the Justice Ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Interior Ministry.

Duma Security Committee Chairman and former Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilev (Unified Russia) said on 1 September that the new measures will include a proposal to allow airport security personnel the discretion to deny passengers access to aircraft. He warned that "difficult times" have begun and said that Russians must "prepare themselves for complications." "We must learn how to defend our families, our homes," Vasilev said.

Although the Russian authorities were somewhat slow to acknowledge that a wave of terrorist attacks had indeed begun, they were quick to seize on the unconfirmed claims of responsibility by a little-known foreign terrorist group called the Islambuli Brigades, which claims to be associated with Al-Qaeda. Sharing a platform in Sochi with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, President Vladimir Putin on 31 August focused on this development. The attacks "confirm a connection between destructive elements in Chechnya and international terrorism, as one of the organizations linked with Al-Qaeda has taken responsibility for these terrorist acts," Putin said.

After the 1 September hostage taking in North Ossetia, Russia took the unusual step of asking for an extraordinary session of the UN Security Council. The Russian media noted that Moscow did not make a similar request during the 1999 incursions by Chechen militants into Daghestan or the October 2002 Moscow theater hostage drama. At that time, Moscow might well have felt inhibited about drawing international attention to the Chechen conflict. Now, however, the international climate against terrorism is so heated that the Kremlin ran no risk that the UN's resolution would be anything less than a categorical condemnation of the terrorist attacks in Russia.

Although Moscow did not seek a specific affirmation of its right to respond to terrorist attacks with force, such as the United States did following the 11 September 2001 attacks, it did ask for and receive an unqualified condemnation of the North Ossetia hostage taking. The council asked all UN member countries to render any possible assistance to Russia in its effort to bring the organizers and perpetrators of the school takeover to justice. The statement specifically said that terrorist acts cannot be justified by any conceivable motive. From the Kremlin's point of view, this resolution can easily be presented as an acknowledgment that the Chechen conflict fits under the rubric of the fight against international terrorism.

Clearly, the UN resolution differs sharply in tone and intent from the kind of international role envisioned in Chechnya by political scientist Liliya Shevtsova. Speaking to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 September, Shevtsova said, "only international involvement can bring an end to this senseless standoff." She called for "the kind of international cooperation and mediation that managed to stop the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland." But she acknowledged that the Russian government would never accept such a role, which would be "an admission of weakness, even impotence of the political regime and its leader, which the Kremlin of course would never allow."
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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