Beslan Tragedy Reveals Flaws In Russian Security Operations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 79

After four massive terrorists attacks against Russian civilians in ten days, culminating in the horrific attack on schoolchildren in Beslan, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally acknowledged the deficiencies in the nation’s law enforcement and security machinery and vowed a major overhaul.

In a televised address on Saturday September 4, Putin promised to create a new system for exercising control over the situation in the North Caucasus. He called for a series of measures aimed at strengthening the unity of the nation and creating an effective crisis management system that would include a redefinition of the scope of law enforcement agencies (Channel One, Rossiia, NTV, September 4). These promises address the most visible organizational flaws that surfaced during the hostage crisis and its aftermath.

Republican and federal authorities have long sought to prevent conflict between the Ossetian and Ingush populations. In the early 1990s the two peoples went through a short but bloody conflict over the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia, and relations between the two groups have been tense ever since. The Beslan raid is thought to have originated in Ingushetia, under orders from the Ingush Wahhabi leader, Magomed Yevloyev. This connection has reportedly prompted many Ossetians to contemplate taking revenge on the Ingush (Izvestiya, Kommersant, September 6). If the allegation is true, it confirms the failure of the official Ossetian-Ingush policy.

Thus, Sergei Fridinsky, the deputy prosecutor general supervising the investigation into the raid, has repeatedly stated that the 32-member guerrilla force was “a terrorist international,” uniting representatives of ten nationalities, including one Ossetian member (Interfax, September 6.) Putin himself, during his lightning visit to Beslan hours after the attack ended, sternly warned that anyone igniting ethnic hatred in the region would be treated as an accomplice of the terrorists (Channel One, September 4). If the attack came from outside Russia, then the episode was not the fault of Russian forces.

Russian forces simply had no way of dealing with the unprecedented situation in Beslan. A better system of crisis management, however, might have prevented the disorganized assault on the building by Interior Ministry troops. Hundreds of lives might have been saved if the town’s armed volunteers had obeyed the commands given by military and security officials on site (Novaya Gazeta, Izvestiya, September 6). Instead, three days into the crisis, special forces troops evidently remained unprepared for an assault, while negotiators had failed to build up any momentum in talks with the gunmen. This confusion suggests a lapse in decision-making and the chain of command.

In an apparent attempt to minimize the potential damage to the Kremlin’s reputation, the formal leadership of the rescue operation was delegated to the North Ossetian authorities, which lacked the organizational and professional capacity to deal with the hostage situation. Republican leaders were unable to block the involvement of volunteers, whose actions interfered with the special services, according to the head of the local branch of the Federal Security Services (FSB) Valery Andreyev (NTV, September 4). They also did not have a mandate to conduct any substantive negotiations with the gunmen, who were demanding the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Chechnya (Novaya gazeta, September 6).

Three days after Putin’s televised statement, it remained unclear what kind of effective anti-crisis management he had in mind. Should it be a new, specialized unit with broad operational authority or a set of measures streamlining the current chain of command?

Putin’s promise for a new security strategy in the North Caucasus remains the most vague. It is also the most critical aspect of any security reform, as it is meant to target acts of terror in that region. Obviously, Putin will not open new negotiations, as demanded by the Chechen rebel leader and former president, Aslan Maskhadov, after the raid (Chechenpress, September 5). Such a move by the Kremlin carries the risk of being regarded as “giving in” to terrorists and would likely lead to new attacks. Instead, he may seek administrative reforms.

Since he was elected president in 2000, Putin has shown himself as a savvy political manager. He swiftly reined in the self-willed regional bosses who threatened to tear the federation apart. He tamed the media and virtually silenced the most outspoken liberal politicians and journalists. He purged the Russian oligarchs from the political playing field. None of these tasks could have been accomplished without Putin and his regime manipulating law enforcement and security organizations. If the security structures remain the backbone of Putin’s personal power, it will be interesting to see what tools he has to bring real, not cosmetic, changes into this machinery itself.