Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 10

By Elena Chinyaeva

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington produced a new international reality. The United States, battered by the attack, and its Western allies, who were flabbergasted by the events, took a pause, which Russian President Vladimir Putin skillfully used to promote Russia’s claim to a new role in the world. During visits to Germany and Belgium, Putin appealed to the West to bury the controversial heritage of the Cold War and construct a new international security system. What the latter might be is anybody’s guess, though it is clear that fundamental changes to the UN-centered international structures, as well as in international legislation, are needed. If anything, Putin’s appeal to the West was a successful PR action. Whether it will lead to any positive results remains to be seen. The way the America has been preparing and conducting its retaliation operation suggests that Russian experience might remain unused.


On the streets of Moscow and in its long underground passages militiamen pick people out from the thick crowd to check their internal passports, in which they should have a Moscow registration stamp to avoid a fine or even detention. Those who usually attract attention have dark complexions and black hair–the typical appearance of people from the Caucasus, including Chechnya, where Russia has been fighting a bloody war with Islamic separatists. Following the explosions that destroyed apartment buildings in Moscow and two other Russian cities two years ago, believed to have been organized by separatists, security measures in the capital were tightened and remain so. Over the last decade, terrorism has become a part of everyday life in Russia, while the practices of compulsory internal passports and registration, random checking and detention without formal charges–inherited, in a somewhat softened form, from the totalitarian Soviet regime–have been criticized by human rights organizations at home and abroad.

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington have shaken the United States and the world. The astonishment at how feeble the security system of the world’s most powerful state was could was matched by bewilderment at democratic America’s first reactions. On September 29, an Afghan family was taken off an America West flight from Los Angeles to Phoenix because their Oriental appearance–meaning, no doubt, dark complexion and black hair–made some passengers feel “uncomfortable.” The proposed security measures for U.S. airports include, among others, employing biometric technologies to match the faces of airline passengers or their fingerprints against databases of known terrorists and employing holographic scanners that can produce a 3D image of the person’s unclothed body to reveal any hidden weapons. Larry Ellison, the founder of the software giant Oracle and the second richest man in the world after Microsoft’s Bill Gates, has urged the U.S. government to create a national identification card system under which millions of Americans would be fingerprinted. Ellison has even generously offered to donate the software needed to run the huge databases on which the system to be used in airports will rely. To his critics Ellison masterfully replied that “in the Internet Age there is no such thing as a privacy anyway–it is an illusion which you have to get rid of.”

Given the shock of September 11, this emotional (or perhaps truly business-like?) though still hardly adequate reaction is understandable–and what other country than Russia can better understand it! At the same time, perhaps no other country’s experience better demonstrates that curtailing civil liberties and tolerating xenophobia is not the best way to combat terrorism.

While it was only recently that terrorism became part of its daily new, Russia first experienced its destructive consequences long ago. On March 1, 1881, the terrorist Grinevitsky hurled a bomb at the carriage of Tsar Aleksandr II, mortally wounding the ruler who had abolished serfdom twenty years earlier and launched liberal reforms in various areas of public life. Political reaction followed. In 1911, the name of Petr Stolypin, another renowned reformist who strove to complete Russia’s modernization, was added to the long list of the left-wing terrorists’ victims. Terrorism was also the main instrument of the opponents of the Bolshevik regime, but the latter soon put the end to it with a much more powerful means–a state terrorism that killed opponents without trial and en masse.

Over the last decade, Russia has found itself in an open war with international terrorists who stand behind militant Islamic separatists in Chechnya. In August 1999 international bands of mercenaries–many of them of Arab origin–launched an attack from Chechnya into the neighboring province of Dagestan, which it hoped to tear off from Russia. The explosions of the apartment buildings in Russian cities followed, announcing to the world that the second Chechen war is more than just a regional conflict. The world, however, did not want to hear this–at least not until September 11. The images broadcast on television–the modern medium of conventional wisdom–of the demolished World Trade Center and the Pentagon starkly illustrated how the international community found itself confronted by international terrorists.

The current situation is one of the consequences of the Cold War. The two superpowers, avoiding a direct military confrontation, used others to fight for them. The Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks, were spawned by the United States, just as some Arab extremists came from organizations indirectly supported by the Soviet Union. The superpowers’ competition became history, but their proteges haven’t left the stage. Instead, they have closed ranks against their former bosses. Russia was the first place where they struck. But the Russian example should be a warning: Neither the assassination of the Chechen leader Johar Dudaev, nor the protracted war in Chechnya put an end to terrorism there.


U.S. officials have declared the September 11 attacks the start of a new type of warfare one that has neither frontlines nor visible enemy. This new warfare will require a new system of international security. The notion that a “common effort” will be needed to combat terrorism has quickly become a cliche, but no one really understands what a “common effort” means. During his September visit to Germany, President Vladimir Putin skillfully used the opportunity to fill in the knowledge gap as laid out to the international community with the Russian view on how the “civilized world” should organize itself. His speech, delivered in the Bundestag in German to the elation of the audience, contained three important messages–one to the United States, another to the West in general and a third to Europe.

He assured America that Russia would support a “common effort” against terrorism, though he then detailed that such support would be restricted to humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and arms supplies to the Northern Alliance of anti-Taliban forces. He thus indicated that Russia is the best suited to be a mediator between the United States and the Arab world, where it has traditionally had strong positions, given that anti-American sentiments are bound to rise with the launch of the U.S. retaliation operations against Islamic states.

The president has appealed to the West in general to end once and for all the double standards of the Cold War. The terrorist attacks made it painfully clear that the tug-of-war between Russia and the United States and NATO over the NMD system and the alliance’s expansion to the East is irrelevant in the context of the current security challenges. Much more important is Russian acquiescence in the use of both its air space and military potential and that of its CIS allies.

And as the world’s only superpower has so suddenly revealed its vulnerability in security issues, the Russian president hinted that Europeans should weigh carefully who might produce a better security guarantee for them–far-away and battered America or Russia, a conveniently close geographical and military buffer with a wealth of experience in dealing with terrorism. Putin followed up on that agenda in Brussels, where during his meeting with European Union and NATO officials, declarations were made about “creating a common Russia-EU economic and security space.” Both his foreign visits were successful PR actions, but whether they will ultimately prove successful remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the results of a PR action simultaneously undertaken in Chechnya was much more modest. Putin decided that that was also the best time to accelerate developments in the breakaway republic, appealing to the terrorists there to lay down their arms within seventy-two hours. For the first time, Putin’s rhetoric acknowledged that among the Chechen guerilla fighters there might be those who were fooled or coerced into fighting against the federal forces, or whose views might be accepted as legitimately different from the Russian government’s, provided the holders of these views would renounce using violence to defend them. This appeal implied that the separatists’ representatives should contact the Russian authorities in Chechnya to start peace negotiations–a point bound to win the president favor in Western public opinion. However, no arms were given up, while the separatists launched attacks in areas of Chechnya supposedly under federal control, killing Russian solders and pro-Moscow Chechen militiamen. It took the army a strenuous effort to recapture these territories, inflicting still more damage on the local population. These events might be followed by a new federal offensive in Chechnya, and Russia can now count on greater understanding from its Western counterparts.


A new type of international security would demand changes in international structures, now centered around the UN, as well as fundamental amendments to international legislation. It was some time ago that Russia first suggested such changes. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Turkey, Russia proposed establishing an international Agency for Emergency Situations to deal with natural disasters. While America pushed for the NMD, thus switching its priorities from maintaining a global security system to bolstering its national one, Russia argued for an international antimissile early warning system. And as various states try on their own to quell terrorist attacks, Russia has pressed for the formation of coordinated antiterrorist centers. Such bodies are to function in the CIS and at the Organization for Cooperation, an association initiated in 1996 by Russia and China together with the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which Uzbekistan joined this year. Unfortunately, Russian initiatives were mostly perceived as tactical steps to divert international attention away from the “inappropriate use of power” in Chechnya or as Russian intrigues against NATO expansion.

On September 11, a session of the UN General Assembly was due to take place in New York, but was postponed. This was notably symbolic: The role of the UN in the world has long been questioned. The fact that the NATO bombing of Belgrade two years ago was undertaken without the UN’s blessing was already a sign that this international forum, created in 1945 to facilitate the dialogue between two opposing systems, is not up to its goals any more. The United States has already applied pressure on various states, urging unconditional support of its retaliation action for the September 11 attacks, thus dividing the international community into its “friends” and “enemies” and further contributing to the collapse of the existing international order.

However, a change of the UN is long overdue. Some sort of parallel structures–an international emergency agency, an antiterrorist center, a military coordination center–should be created in the near future in response to the most acute issues, such as terrorism, natural calamities and technological challenges. NATO, as the most powerful military organization, could become the core of an international military force–provided its concept and mission are fundamentally rethought. As the UN and international structures are reformed, the main principle of the current international security system–collective responsibility–should be preserved.

The new international security order would also require an overhaul of international legislation. There is a gap between an individual’s human rights and a nation’s right to defend itself in the face of a terrorist threat. A number of countries are considering amendments to legislation restricting the legal powers security services, while the UN General Assembly session that began in early October tried to produce an agreement on the definition of terrorism. Those are the first steps towards elaborating a special branch of international law–antiterrorist legislation.

The new millennium has produced new global challenges. Russia, with its bitter experience of losing a superpower status and going through painful changes while at the same time battling with international terrorists on its own soil, might have appeared best prepared to abandon the old security cliches. However, its hopes for a new “true” partnership with the West, and particularly the United States, might be futile. In preparing and conducting its retaliation action, America, while acting in concert with its main allies, has acted largely on its own. It has also started establishing its military presence in what has always been a Russian zone of influence–the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. It is quite likely that Washington will “forget” to vacate this vital strategic region once the immediate need for its military presence there has passed, as has already happened in the Caucasian republic of Georgia, renowned for its pro-U.S. and pro-NATO orientation. Should this happen, Russia would find itself not in a qualitatively new relationship with NATO, but surrounded by it on all sides.

Elena Chinyaeva, who holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University, is a writer with the leading Russian political weekly Kommersant-Vlast.