For ordinary Russians, once far removed from such troubles, recent events have brought Russia’s experience with terrorism on its southern periphery to the forefront. As the full impact of the Beslan tragedy gradually takes hold, the Kremlin has lost no time in projecting an image of control and leadership in response to the scenes of carnage that touched the very nerve of the nation. Strong statements from President Vladimir Putin, including his uncompromising language in interviews with Western media in which he equated talking to Chechen separatists as almost synonymous with the West holding talks with Osama bin Laden, footage from inside the school during the crisis broadcast of Russian TV, combined with a huge response to the authorities’ call for people to protest against terrorism in Red Square, convey a curious mix of emotion and early political efforts to calm the public. The decision to place a bounty of $10 million on the heads of the Chechen “rebel leaders” Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov for information leading to their arrest is one more bold assertion of the Chechenization of the crisis. However, the consequences of Beslan may be far reaching not only for the Chechen Republic itself, but also in the formulation of Russia’s own version of the global war on terror.
Putin, in his public statements and private interviews, has captured the public mood of anger and outrage. His clear and unambiguous description of those involved in the siege in North Ossetia as “child-killers” reflects the attitudes of individuals who attended the rally against terror in Red Square on September 7. One Russian pensioner reportedly said, “It was a slap in the face for Russia. We will not take it” (Interfax, September 7). Many such instances of the popular reaction to Beslan suggest that it was a defining moment in Russia’s post-Cold War history and will have serious implications for its security structures and its military posture.
The linkage made by the Kremlin with the events in Beslan and separatism in Chechnya, notably capitalizing on the demands for Chechen independence made by the terrorists during the siege, and “international terrorism” has resulted in assuming the position that any possibility of talks with separatists in these circumstances is out of the question. Former Russian prime minister Evgeny Primakov adopted this position, for example, after the Nord-Ost theater siege in Moscow in October 2002. What does, however, distinguish the Kremlin’s response to Beslan from previous well-publicized terrorist attacks in Russia is the tone as well as intent: Russia is evidently not only contemplating a security crackdown in the North Caucasus coupled with reform of its security structures to meet the terrorist threat adequately in the future, but possibly taking pre-emptive military action beyond Russia’s borders against Chechen terrorist camps.
It remains unclear at this point whether the Kremlin’s policy has been realistically reflected in statements to reporters in Moscow by made Colonel-General Yuri Baluyevsky, Chief of the General Staff, suggesting that Russia may reserve the right to take pre-emptive military action to eliminate terrorist bases in any region of the world, with the caveat that it will not use nuclear weapons in such attacks. Such ideas, even being mooted by a senior figure in the military planning staff, confirm that security actors are already thinking in new ways about confronting terrorism inside Russia (Interfax, September 8). Of course, hinting at the possibility has the effect of calming the public to some extent, keen as they are to see the authorities doing something to deal with the recent wave of terrorist attacks, though they only make sense if Moscow is in fact considering changing its military posture relating to terrorism. It may well be the case that Beslan will prove a watershed and provoke not only a crackdown but the development of Russia’s own “war on terror” fought ruthlessly and according to its own rules. Baluyevsky did temper his remarks, which drew criticism from the EU, stating that military measures are the last resort in fighting terrorism, which must be intelligence led.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has taken up the idea, utilized by Putin in his address to the Russian people on September 4, that terrorists have effectively declared war on Russia, in his own statements. Nonetheless, Ivanov has previously spoken of Russia facing an invisible enemy in such a war, and his recent statement may merely be part of an intensive information campaign designed to allay public fears and prevent the eruption of ethnic conflict throughout the North Caucasus. What will single out the political fallout from Beslan is whether in the near term practical measures are taken to support such aggressive language (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 7). What is clear is that the Russian bear is wounded, suffering the worst hostage death toll in living memory, and it must soon rejoin the conflict.