As the death toll in Beslan climbed past 350, Russian President Vladimir Putin broke his silence on September 4 in an address to the Russian people. During his televised speech, Putin showed no sign of revising Russia’s security policies in Chechnya and seemed to utilize the speech to again link the ongoing Chechen crisis with the global war on terror.
In Putin’s mind, the events in Beslan were a product of Russia’s weakness resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union and its failure to react adequately in the face of a rising terrorist threat. In that context, he has promised a comprehensive shake-up of the Russian security apparatus, probably on a scale that exceeds the defensive counter-measures enacted after the October 2002 Nord-Ost theater siege in Moscow.
Putin seeks to strengthen Russian security by creating a new system of interaction among the various security forces tasked with maintaining security in the North Caucasus. This will involve establishing a reformed system of crisis management in order to deal more effectively with the type of security challenge presented by the seizure of the school in Beslan (Interfax, September 4).
Putin has already sealed the borders of North Ossetia, a prophylactic move designed to curtail the escape of any surviving hostage takers. The president’s near nostalgic view of Soviet border security suggests that Moscow likely will pay increased attention to border security and intelligence gathering on terrorists within Russia and elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Putin’s approach will find extensive support within Russia’s security establishments. Sergei Mironov, Speaker of the Russian Federation Council, believes that Russian citizens will now support increased security measures affecting their daily life, such as tightening security around transport and public gatherings. In itself, this would be a huge undertaking that would cost considerable sums of money to adequately support. But can Russia be reasonably expected to increase its security to meet the exposed nature of such soft targets as schools and theaters? Some officials appear to be talking about exactly such a scenario. For example, Major-General Viktor Pivchenko, Deputy Head of the Interior Ministry’s Directorate for Extra-Departmental Protection, lamented the low number of schools currently protected by the Interior Ministry; estimated at 79 out of around 90,000 educational establishments. In his view it is no longer acceptable to leave their security to mere watchmen: “A package of measures is needed in order to ensure security. The protection has to be professional and cooperation has to be established among all services involved” (Itar-Tass, September 5).
Despite the resignation of Kazbek Dzantiyev, regional Interior Minister in North Ossetia, there has been no evidence of the emergence of a blame culture that seeks victims within Russia’s political and security structures. However, whatever measures are implemented in the near future, there is no escaping the vulnerable nature of such “soft targets,” nor is there anything to be gained by attempting to argue that what happened in Beslan was only possible in Russia. Beslan, planned and organized by terrorists intent on causing loss of civilian life, could have occurred anywhere in the world. More significant still is Putin’s interpretation of the act itself as representing a “declaration of war” on Russia by international terrorists. Any indication that the Kremlin may reconsider how it controls Chechen separatism appears to have faded in the wake of Beslan. What appears on offer from Putin is tougher measures and greater reliance on security structures to cope with Russia’s rising levels of terrorist incidents.
The cause of Chechen separatism has suffered a setback because it is now linked in the popular mind with horrific, ruthless acts of terrorism, passing into the uncharted area of targeting children. Putin remained largely silent during the crisis, and he now seeks to reaffirm his credentials as the one politician in Russia that can secure progress against terrorism, which is not necessarily synonymous with bringing peace to Chechnya. As international sympathy and support have been rapidly given to Russia, Putin will seek to capitalize on such evidence of international unity. Already Russian security sources have pointed to the possibility that the seizure of the school was financed by al-Qaeda, citing the alleged presence of around ten Arab fighters among the hostage takers as evidence that Russia has suffered at the hands of “international terrorism.” Internationally, Putin’s main challenge will be to manage this support for his cause and turn it to his advantage. Perhaps also, he may take the opportunity to argue Russia’s case for a renewed coalition against international terrorism. His problem, and that of any future Russian leader, will be how to secure a long-term acceptable settlement of Chechnya without appearing to compromise with terrorism.