The recent spate of terrorist acts in Russia has prompted Moscow policymakers and analysts to assert that their country is at war. Yet the fundamental question “against who?” remains as murky as the concept “international terrorism.” The ongoing political debate reveals that the bulk of Russian political class is nostalgic for Moscow’s lost great power status, deeply unhappy about the former superpower’s strategic retreat, and suspicious of the West.
Putin himself has forcefully advanced the argument that Russia faces a formidable geopolitical challenge. In his September 4 address to the nation following the Beslan massacre, Putin called for the mobilization of society to resist what he termed “a total and full-scale war” meant to weaken and divide the country. But the Kremlin leader was much less specific about the perpetrators of the deadly assault against Russia. First Putin would say that international terrorism seeks to destroy Russia, then he would suggest the terrorists are pawns of some larger force. In one of the most intriguing passages of his address Putin revealed that the Kremlin believes some countries threatened by Russia’s nuclear deterrent could be supporting the terrorist attacks to try to weaken Russia. The efforts to “tear off a juicy chunk of our country,” he says, are being assisted by those who “think that Russia, as one of the greatest nuclear powers of the world, is still a threat, and this threat has to be eliminated.” Putin didn’t name the countries that allegedly are trying to undermine Russia, but he appeared to have some Western states in mind.
A number of Russian strategists have readily welcomed Putin’s tough stance, saying the Russian commander-in-chief has finally called a spade a spade. As one analyst notes, “terrorists” are not some mythical creatures from a parallel world, but well-trained sabotage units that are used by one state against another. Any “international terrorism” that is larger in scope than a local rebel movement, “has always been and still remains an instrument in the Great Game,” argues security expert Yegor Kholmogorov. So Putin, most Russian commentators say, identified Russia’s enemy with as much clarity as diplomatic conventions allow.
“This statement is an attack against the West,” one leading defense expert bluntly stated. “Whom do Russia’s nuclear weapons threaten? They do not threaten the Arab world and they do not threaten China.”
At Putin’s September 6 meeting with Western journalists and scholars, the Russian leader adopted a more nuanced approach but kept his earlier accusatory tone. “I did not say Western countries were initiating terrorism, and I did not say it was policy,” Putin pointed out. “But we have observed incidents. It is a replay of the Cold War mentality. There are certain people who want us to be focused on internal problems and they pull strings here so that we don’t raise our heads internationally,” he contended.
Such a defensive outlook appears widespread among Russia’s foreign policy and security elites. The discussion at a recent international conference in Novgorod gives a fairly good idea of the current debate. Nostalgia for the days of past glory, bitterness, disillusionment, and a feeling of strategic isolation dominated the speeches given by Russian participants. According to Andrei Kokoshin, head of the State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, the West cynically deceived the Soviet Union, which had too carelessly opened up toward it during the late 1980s, and then the West deceived Russia as well. The U.S.-led Western alliance, asserted Kokoshin, “took advantage of the situation, finished us off, and then continued going about its own business.” The West disregards Russia’s vital interests, particularly in the post-Soviet Eurasia, echoed another top lawmaker. “The outside world professes the following dogma: a good Russia is a weak Russia,” bitterly noted Konstantin Kosachev, the head of Russian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
Significantly, Putin used his September 4 speech to lament the collapse of the Soviet Union — “the colossal state and great power” — and took pride in the preservation of its core, the Russian Federation. According to one expert invited to the meeting September 6 with Putin, the Kremlin leader’s words “were not infrequently tinged with pronounced nostalgia for the Soviet times.”
During Putin’s first months in office he made it clear that Russia was going to play an independent international role, not tying itself to any of the larger global actors. The desire of both elites and society to retain a traditional great-power identity was obvious. Instead of “integration” with the West, some analysts depicted Russia as a center of power in its own right, ready for “interaction” with the West.
The August and September terrorist attacks appear to have sharpened Moscow’s sense of strategic isolation. Among the Russian political class there is a dominant perception that the assault on the country and the West’s ambiguous, if not suspicious, position has left Russia to face this invisible and dangerous enemy by itself. There is no international coalition, claims Kholmogorov. “Russia stands alone against the pack of big and small predators seeking to tear it to pieces,” he argues. Kokoshin commented that just as the Soviet Union fought a “total war” during World War II, Putin is trying to frame this conflict as an existential conflict for the nation that requires the mobilization of all resources under a single command. (Russ.ru, August 5; Moscow Times, August 6, 7; Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 6, 9; Guardian, August 8; Vremya novostei, August 8; Vedomosti, August 8.)