Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 4 address to the nation after the horrific resolution of the hostage crisis in Beslan galvanized Russian diplomacy into action. One of the first steps during the weekend was to summon the Dutch ambassador to the Foreign Ministry and request explanations regarding the “blasphemous” statement by Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, who questioned the use of force in the tragic events on Friday. These explanations were duly provided (and more information about this messy operation is obviously needed) and accepted, with some grumbling about the “provocation” initiated by an improbable Latvia (StranaRu, September 4; Izvestiya, September 6). The Russian Foreign Ministry might conclude that its diplomatic demarche achieved its goal and would be remembered as an emotional over-reaction, which, in fact, it was not (Guardian, September 6).
Russia has actively exploited the international struggle against terrorism since the start of the Second Chechen War in autumn 1999. The al-Qaeda attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, opened up many new opportunities for converting this issue into an asset for foreign policy, but most of those openings have been exhausted over the past three years.
Assessing the international resonance of the Beslan massacre, Moscow has discovered a chance to reinvigorate its claim for a prominent place in the global counter-terrorist coalition. Putin first advanced this claim in a meeting with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder the day before the attack on the school (EDM, September 1). In his September 4 message, the wording on this topic was barely comprehensible, with unspecified threats to those who “would like to tear from us a juicy piece of pie” and condemnation of their supporters (PolitRu, September 6). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Israel, was more diplomatic, proclaiming terrorism to be “the main enemy of all states and peoples” (StranaRu, September 6). He also ordered all Russian embassies to announce as widely as possible that books of condolences were available for signing. It is clear that the Russian Foreign Ministry was given the task of channeling the broad international condemnation of terrorism towards improving Russia’s international profile.
It is perfectly clear for Putin that Russia’s status and his own reputation have experienced a steady decline during the past year, due to the negative fallout from the Yukos affair, the sour aftertaste from the too tightly controlled parliamentary and presidential elections, and the widespread recognition of the endemic corruption of his regime. Rescuing this status is a personal matter for Putin, who spent nearly four hours with foreign journalists and experts on Monday night spelling out his stance. The presidential website (http://president.kremlin.ru/mainpage.shtml) was remarkably slow in reporting this meeting, but the participants noted his anger aimed at “mid-level officials in the U.S. administration” who could not distinguish terrorists from freedom fighters due to their “Cold War mentality” (CNN, September 7; Guardian, September 7).
Putin’s counter-terrorist spin on the Beslan tragedy involves three specific points that, taken together, should explain away the lack of leadership and the inefficiency of the security services in handling the hostage situation. First, it is considered essential to prove the international connections of the band of hostage takers. The news about ten dead Arabs broke on Friday afternoon, when the firefight was still underway and it was impossible to identify the bodies. Putin quickly recycled this factoid to the foreign journalists despite the contrary evidence given by the former hostages (GazetaRu, September 7). Second, every effort is being made to establish that the assault was neither ordered nor planned; the chaotic bloodshed broadcast live to the whole world provides strong evidence of that failure. However, the demonstrated lack of willingness to enter into any meaningful negotiations with the terrorists means that a forceful assault was the only available option, the question was just about the timing (Moskovsky komsomolets, September 6). Third, with every possible stretch of argument, the Beslan tragedy should be separated from the war in Chechnya, which was not mentioned once in Putin’s address (Izvestiya, September 6). Since it is impossible to hide the fiasco of the Kremlin’s massive propaganda effort trumpeting “normalization” in Chechnya, the theme has to be closed. Any attempt at offering a political way out of the deadlocked war will now be rejected with righteous rage.
The simple request for additional information presented by Dutch Foreign Minister Bot hit not just a raw political nerve, but also the very foundation of this new Russian diplomatic offensive. The Kremlin spinmeisters consider information to be a very dangerous substance that must be carefully controlled — and no one can ask questions that do not fit the prepared answers. There is often a chance to score a political point or two under this smokescreen, but in essence it is a loser’s game. Unable to step away from his “tough line” in Chechnya, Putin will inevitably fail in his European aspirations, since his regime is trapped in a spiral of inadequate responses to senseless violence.