PRAGUE, 9 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- This was Putin at his most comfortable -- addressing an audience of similar minds: the board of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
The security service is oozing with confidence after its recent revelations of British intrigue and a year in which its role at the center of the state has gone from strength to strength.
But it was the Federal Border Guard Service that he singled out for praise. The security of Russia's borders has been a preoccupation of Putin's presidency.
"I visited the border this year and saw what was going on there," Putin said. "You're doing a good job. Simply good. And the border guards feel completely different now and their efficiency is different. And you should work like this in carrying your main task, which is fighting terrorists: strike decisively in the right place, at every cave, find those caves and exterminate [terrorists] hiding in them like rats."
Putin said the border guards have prevented numerous attempts by international terrorists and drug smugglers to enter Russia illegally.
The Russian president's comments reflect his evident satisfaction that the reorganization and refunding of the border guards are bearing fruit.
In December, Border Guards Service head Colonel General Vladimir Pronichev said 14.8 billion rubles ($523 million) had been allotted toward strengthening Russia's problematic North Caucasus border alone.
By the end of 2006, he said, that would translate into 72 border-guard bases, nine command centers, and one training center in the North Caucasus. Putin is clearly satisfied. "As a result, a number of routes that allow international terrorists to smuggle weapons and drugs onto Russian territory have been blocked," he said. "One of the consequences is that the operational capacities of the border guards working along the most difficult border, that in the North Caucasus, have increased."
The Russian perception of the North Caucasus as a potential weakness reflects the conflict in Chechnya and the growing fear that the fighting in Chechnya is spreading to Daghestan and Kabardino-Balkaria.
The mountainous border with Georgia and Azerbaijan is particularly hard to defend and in the past has proved notoriously porous. Moscow has often accused Georgia of allowing Chechen fighters to use the mountain passes as a supply route.
Just how significant a problem this was is unclear. In neighboring Georgia there is a strong suspicion that Russia prefers to keep the border in a state of constant instability. Why, the Georgians ask, were the Russians so determined to end the border-observation mission run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)?
"It [the OSCE mission] served as some kind of impartial observer in conflicts between Russia and Georgia," said Gia Nodia, director of the Georgian-based Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development. "Russia has often blamed that terrorists from Georgia have trespassed the border and entered Russia. Georgia has disagreed with that and it was very hard to find out what was reality and the OSCE mission was very important to bring impartial information for the international community on this issue."
Chaos By Design
Nodia sees Russia's refusal to sign off on a border demarcation treaty with Russia as part of the same problem.
"The Russian political elite is in general annoyed by Georgia and they tend to prefer to have as many problems in relation to Georgia as possible in order to have leverage against Georgia," Nodia said.
One of those levers is South Ossetia, one of Georgia's two breakaway provinces bordering Russia. The Georgians have long accused the Russian peacekeeping force in South Ossetia of using their control of the province to smuggle goods and people back and forth across the Russian-Georgian border.
Little wonder then if Georgia regards the buildup of Russia's border-guard force in the North Caucasus with less enthusiasm than the Kremlin.