The world watched in horror two weeks ago as Russia suffered yet another terrorist attack, a suicide bombing that killed 36 people and injured over 100 more in the baggage claim area of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. In response, Russian leaders sounded familiar phrases about the monstrosity and senselessness of the attack. They pledged to find the plotters, exact retribution, and prevent future recurrences.
Yet, the initial response of the last two weeks does not offer the real changes that might keep Russia safe in the future. There has been little action by the Duma, Russia’s legislature, besides authorizing the president to use a color-coded terror warning system and improve law enforcement cooperation. Instead, the leading political figures appear to be more concerned with insulating themselves from political damage than pursuing policy changes to prevent future attacks.
Politically, President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are vulnerable to criticism over Russia’s recent domestic terrorism. For Medvedev, the persistent attacks suggest that his administration is not capable of addressing the terrorist threat effectively. For Putin, terrorist violence that originates in and around Chechnya illustrates the failure of his brutal campaign against Chechen separatists and the ineffectiveness of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s hand-picked strongman, in pacifying the region.
Instead of asking tough questions about counter-terrorism and security failures, Medvedev dealt with his political vulnerability by looking for scapegoats in the airport administration: ordering Russia’s prosecutor general to evaluate the airport’s compliance with federal security legislation, criticizing government transportation staff and airport police, and allegedly firing several police officers responsible for airport security. How these officials were negligent, whether that negligence was connected with the attacks, and how their firing improves security all remain unresolved.
Putin was also on defense, deflecting criticisms that frequent terrorist attacks were the byproduct of his failed Chechnya policy. Without offering evidence, he hurriedly assured that Chechens were not likely linked to the attack. In the following days state security officials leaked that they believed the bomber came from a neighboring North Caucasus region, Dagestan, which borders Chechnya, and whose president was appointed by Medvedev, not Putin.
Miscommunication between Medvedev and Putin is another cause to worry that the post-attack investigation and response are not going smoothly. In a rare moment of discord, less than a day after Putin declared the investigation mostly resolved, Medvedev said that it would be unacceptable to close the case without the final report. Whether the discrepancy represents a greater schism between the two is unclear, but certainly suggests that the Russian political leaders are not on the same page about the nature or direction of the investigation.
Aside from the self-serving politics, there is reason to believe the Russian government is simply unable to enact the changes necessary to prevent attacks in the future. To do so would require an in-depth assessment of the successes and failures of the Federal Security Service (FSB), a messy and unwelcome ordeal for any security and intelligence organization, and one that is even less likely given the political stature state security organs enjoy in Russia: the Siloviki, a slang term for current and former state security officials and military personnel, are thought to represent as many as one quarter of the senior bureaucrats in federal government posts.
Additionally, any investigation or criticism of the FSB would be an indirect attack on Putin, who once ran the agency and has worked hard to cultivate an image of competence in security matters. Medvedev went out of his way to avoid discussing the failure of the FSB in preventing the airport bombing. The unwillingness of the sitting Russian president to criticize the FSB illustrates the powerful influence the security services weild in modern Russia.
Lastly, Russia has a unique relationship with the North Caucasus, including a degree of ethnic stereotyping that colors terrorist attacks as somewhat inevitable. The region, though long a part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, has often been the site of sporadic and violent separatist movements, leading to the characterization of Caucasians as outlaws, bandits, or worse. Rather than “terrorist”, Putin and Medvedev frequently refer to the attackers as “bandits” or “criminals”, words that are coded for the Russian collective perception of North Caucasians. This ethnic and cultural stereotyping suggests that violence in the region is inevitable and terrorism is the price Russia must be paid to keep the region from breaking away.
It is tragic that terrorist attacks have become so frequent in Russia in the last decade. Not a year goes by without another senseless attack on a metro station, a school, an opera house, or a shopping mall – and now an airport. But as long as Russia’s political leaders are more concerned with protecting their own power than asking tough questions about the failure of the state security services, little will change. Unfortunately, the early days after the Moscow airport attack offer little hope one should expect anything else from Medvedev and Putin.
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