The outstanding success of the British secret services in foiling a terrorist plot that could have claimed hundreds of lives did not fail to make headlines in the Russian media. Newspapers emphasized particularly the fact that all detained suspects were young Muslims of Pakistani origin born in the UK and noted that this network had been penetrated by undercover agents and carefully monitored for many months (Rossiiskaya gazeta; Izvestiya; Vedomosti, August 11). There was, however, a distinctive tone of indifference to the mainstream commentary. It was the chaos in Heathrow and other British airports that received the most extensive coverage, including the plight of a group of Russian school children who had missed their scheduled flight (Lenta.ru, August 10). The broadly held perception is that, except for these interruptions in commuting to London, the crisis is not particularly relevant to Russia.
The Ministry of Transport duly announced increased security measures in Russian airports, but in reality it was hard to detect any additional precautions or delays (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 11). It was even hard to believe that just two years ago, on August 24, 2004, suicide bombers boarded two airplanes taking off from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport and destroyed the aircraft in mid-air. Authorities at that time were so desperate to hide their inability to prevent terrorist attacks that they initially tried to deny any foul play and cited technical reasons for the near-simultaneous crashes (Novaya gazeta, August 26, 2004). In the preceding weeks and months, Moscow had seen suicide bombers targeting metro stations, shopping malls, and rock concerts; in October 2002 there was a massive hostage-taking in the Nord-Ost theater that left more than 130 innocent victims dead.
The pattern changed abruptly after the Beslan school hostage tragedy in early September 2004 as terrorist activity has become concentrated in the North Caucasus. There were serious worries that Chechen separatists could try to derail the G-8 St. Petersburg summit last month with a massive attack similar to the London bombings on July 7, 2005; what happened instead was the astonishing news about an explosion in Ingushetia that killed Chechen terrorist Shamil Basaev. The FSB claimed that it had conducted a “special operation” and was awarded official honors, but the circumstances of the blast clearly pointed to an accidental detonation as the cause of death (Ezhednevny zhurnal, July 10). That lucky break has not significantly changed the pattern of terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus, where targeted explosions claimed lives of officials and policemen in Dagestan and Ingushetia last week, while a large-scale hunt for rebels continued for the whole week-end around Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria (Newsru.com, August 13; EDM August 10).
These explosions and shoot-outs are widely believed to be a local phenomenon. According to the latest Levada Center poll, just 10% of Russians now tend to include terrorist attacks in the list of most urgent threats, on top of which are rising prices (71%) and poverty (51%) (Levada.ru, August 1). There are still lukewarm debates about the revisions to the Law on Countering Terrorism that granted the authorities the right to shoot down airplanes captured by terrorists, but the underlying assumption is that Russian Air Force would hardly be able to intercept any target on a short notice (Ekho Moskvy, August 12). Funding for counter-terrorist activities is certainly not drying up, but the creation of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee earlier this year is generally recognized as a means to assure that the FSB would have the upper hand in turf wars with other “power structures” (Kommersant, February 17).
This greatly reduced level of internal terrorist threat is translated into gradually shifting foreign policy guidelines that increasingly aim at securing for Russia a position of “neutrality” in the main theaters of the U.S.-led war against terror. While officially remaining a member of the global anti-terrorist coalition, Moscow sees very little point in engaging in operations against al-Qaeda, even in Afghanistan, which generates destabilizing impacts on Central Asia and Russian energy interests in the Caspian area. Russia has maintained a scrupulously balanced approach towards the war in Lebanon, delaying the adoption of the “one-sided” resolution in the UN Security Council and even introducing its own single-point draft with the demand for a 72-hour “humanitarian” ceasefire (Vremya novostei, August 9). Acknowledging both Hezbollah and Hamas as legitimate actors in the Middle Eastern arena, Moscow clearly seeks to stay on speaking terms with the Islamic radicals that target Israel and identify the United States as their main enemy. This “tolerance” was momentarily shaken in June when four Russian diplomats were kidnapped and murdered in Iraq, but the forthcoming debates in the UN on Iran’s nuclear program appear destined to hit the rocks of Russia’s reluctance to discuss any kind of sanctions (EDM, July 3).
Counter-terrorism has remained the trademark theme of Putin’s regime for the last seven years, beginning August 9, 1999, when Yeltsin appointed the little-known apparatchik to be prime minister and his designated successor. Apparently, the Kremlin has decided that the usefulness of this topic has been exhausted and a more flexible line would be more appropriate for the period of “peace and prosperity” that is planned to culminate in the transfer of power to a new hand-picked successor (Gazeta.ru, August 7). Russians are not supposed to play any meaningful role in influencing the outcome of cut-throat intrigues around the throne, so the atmosphere of political apathy has to be carefully maintained. Society needs to be convinced that Putin’s tightly managed quasi-democracy works much better than any Western model, with ethnic riots in France, home-grown terrorism in the UK, and the United States sinking in the quagmire of war in Iraq. The problem is that cultivating the “never-better” beliefs fed by the inflow of “petro-rubles” is the political equivalent of laying a self-made trap that tends to spring at the most inopportune moment. One thing Putin’s team has never been good at is handling crises; his courtiers have apparently decided that the next one would never happen. History suggests this optimism is misplaced.