The shock of the double terrorist attack in Moscow metro on March 29 is subsiding, however the follow-up suicide explosions in Dagestan and Ingushetia confirm that the North Caucasus is not going through just another upsurge of instability but is engulfed by a local civil war. President Dmitry Medvedev is trying to talk tougher than his mentor and co-ruler Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but his promises to destroy all perpetrators are weakened by the lack of clarity on the sources of risk and drivers of the escalation. This vague discourse reflects the inability to analyze the transformation of several overlapping conflicts and to grasp their significance for Russia’s immediate future.
Medvedev’s “modernization” course, incoherent as it is, is underpinned by Putin’s conclusion that “we succeeded in ending the war in the North Caucasus,” which he presented as a key achievement of his presidency at the State Council meeting in February 2008 (official translation at https://eng.kremlin.ru/speeches/2008/02/08/1137_type82912type82913_159643.shtml). Medvedev cannot present any rational explanation for why terrorism has recovered from that “decisive and crushing blow” that Putin took credit for. He cannot hope to launch a decisive counter-offensive because the “enemy” cannot be identified, but he feels compelled to prioritize “hard security” measures.
This “securitization” clearly does not suit his personal quasi-liberal preferences and goes against the “Putinism-lite” style of his presidency. He has managed to dodge a number of security challenges that demanded priority attention from the commander-in-chief. The war with Georgia in August 2008 could have set Russia on a confrontation course with NATO, but it was over before Medvedev had managed to take control of any combat forces and the international protests evaporated without a trace in a matter of a few months. The military reform that has been driven forward with remarkable determination since the fall of 2008 could have required presidential involvement, but Medvedev has limited his role to taking care of housing and other “social conditions” of officers. Arms control negotiations with the US, which have resulted in the landmark Prague Treaty, should have proceeded under constant supervision from the Kremlin, but Medvedev has avoided the tedious details on numbers and verification.
The North Caucasus, however, has demanded from Medvedev answers to increasingly tough questions, particularly since June 2009, when the assassination of Dagestan’s Interior Minister, Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, was followed by the suicide car bombing attack on Ingushetia’s President, Yunus-bek Yevkurov. At that moment, Dokka Umarov’s declaration about rebuilding the Riyadus Salikhin “battalion of martyrs” appeared to be just boastful propaganda, but the deadly attack on the police headquarters in Nazran in August proved that the threat has sharply grown to proportions associated with the late arch-terrorist Shamil Basaev. Medvedev appointed General Arkady Yedelev to take charge of all law enforcement structures in Ingushetia, but perhaps more important was Medvedev’s meeting with Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov, who essentially received a “green light” to pursue the rebels across republican borders.
It appeared that Kadyrov, who only in April 2009 made Moscow lift the “counter-terrorist operation” regime in Chechnya, was effectively establishing control over regional security and several low-casualties suicide attacks in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan demonstrated the need for his “iron hand” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 30). Yevkurov, nevertheless, gradually reclaimed authority and persisted with his message that repression could not produce pacification. Medvedev clearly preferred to look for non-military solutions and expressed views rather alien for Putin’s siloviki: “The roots of the problem are in the makeup of our lives: in unemployment, poverty, in clans who do not give a whit about the people, but simply divide the cash flows arriving here among themselves, who fight for contracts and then with each other to settle scores, and in corruption which, indeed, has become very widespread within the law enforcement agencies, too” (https://eng.kremlin.ru/speeches/2009/08/19/1857_type82912type82913_221060.shtml).
When Medvedev announced his intention to appoint a new presidential representative in the North Caucasus local leaders saw no reason for worry, and Kadyrov lobbied hard for Yedelev, indicating also that he might consider taking the post himself (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 10, 2009). After a pause, Medvedev made a strong and unexpected decision in January, splitting the Southern Federal District into two parts and appointing Krasnoyarsk krai Governor, Aleksandr Khloponin, as presidential envoy to the newly-created North Caucasus Federal District. The only reason for Khloponin to accept this difficult job is ambition, and he made a good start by living up to his reputation of efficient team-leader and setting priority on taking control over the distribution of federal funds. That did not sit well with Kadyrov, and he was further offended when Yedelev was sacked during Medvedev’s kick-start of reforms in the interior ministry (Yezhednevny Zhurnal, April 6).
Suicide attacks in Moscow have instantly undermined Khloponin’s efforts to shift the emphasis to economic and business activities, as Medvedev is compelled to grant a “search-and-destroy” warrant to a new counter-terrorist operational group that will be created by the Federal Security Service (FSB), interior ministry and prosecutor-general’s office (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 7; Kommersant, April 8). The too obvious helplessness of the FSB in investigating the new terrorist offensive (its success in identifying and destroying the organizers of the Nevsky Express train bombing last November is also questionable) shows that the complex and evolving emergency in the North Caucasus is very poorly understood in the self-centered federal center. The interplay between the escalation of vicious squabbles of corrupt political clans (Magomedtagirov’s assassination is one manifestation) and the growth of cross-border Islamist networks is indeed very difficult to monitor, and nobody is prepared to look into Kadyrov’s interests and intentions.
Medvedev has no choice but to declare that the proactive strategy in the North Caucasus will be continued, but Khloponin has the thankless task of explaining that neither of the two key elements of this strategy –buying the loyalty of local elites and exterminating the malcontents– is sustainable. The federal budget cannot afford pouring unlimited funds over smoldering conflicts and the brutality of corrupt law enforcement only helps recruit new rebels (The New Times, April 5). Putin’s siloviki have grown too rich and incompetent to try a new counter-terrorist mobilization and “tightening screws” in the self-serving bureaucratic machine. They are, nevertheless, perfectly positioned to shut down those feeble propositions in Medvedev’s “modernization” that could threaten their parochial interests.