According to recent high-profile statements from the Russian political and military leadership, Russia is effectively at war with terrorists — again. Many would argue that Russia has been at war with a form of terrorism in its ongoing decade-long conflict in Chechnya, officially portrayed as a “counter-terrorist campaign.” Post Beslan, it appears that the security elite believe a new chapter has opened in this struggle, one that involves the very survival of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, launched against Russia as the “victim” of the Beslan tragedy.
Tough talking, notably with President Vladimir Putin defining the greatest risk in this war as emanating from a perception of Russian weakness, which could result in their theoretical defeat, has prepared the way for the first salvos in Russia’s response. Practical steps are already underway, proceeding at rapid pace as the international community expresses concern for what is shaping up as a step back from democratization. Moscow’s defense of its current position is merely to remind the world that it is an internal matter, while restating Putin’s promise that measures and reform of the political system aimed at strengthening Russian security will be carried through in accordance with the constitution.
There appears to be three interconnected phases to Russia’s new war. The first phase, which began with Putin’s September 4 speech on Russian TV and was followed by media suggestions that a military campaign would probably include preemptive strikes against hostile targets, was designed to test the waters at home and abroad. Putin would incur severe criticism within Russia should he be seen to react quickly to the terrorist attacks that culminated in the Beslan disaster. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has been busily hinting at coming strikes and overtly describing the Russian position.
The second phase will begin by identifying short- and medium-term targets for security-sector reform, geared towards improving the state’s ability to contain and neutralize any similar terrorist crisis. This will witness stepping up security throughout the Northern Caucasus, endeavoring to contain the Chechen situation and prevent ethnic violence from spreading regionally. Another key component in this phase will be managerial tinkering as well as actual structural reforms within some security agencies. Finally, as the second phase overlaps and stretches into areas of military reform, it is highly likely that some kind of punitive military action will follow.
At the macro level, it is already apparent that greater emphasis upon border security has affected plans to increase the numbers of contract servicemen serving in border troops. Now deployment is set to grow dramatically near Caucasus hot spots. Lieutenant-Colonel Sergei Livantsev, chief of the press service of the North Caucasus regional FSB Border Guard Directorate, projects professional manning of border guard units in Chechnya and Ingushetia by 2007; including the Argun (Chechnya), Nazran (Ingushetia) border units and the Borzoi Chechen special forces unit (Interfax, September 14). An anti-terrorist commission has been formed in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, placed under the operational control of the Russian Interior Ministry and the FSB; the Ministry of Defense will supply anti-terrorist specialist units within the command group. It is currently devising a clear-cut counter-terrorist action plan. Responsibility for the security of schools, hospitals, kindergartens, and other potential “soft-targets” for terrorists has been assigned to police, military, or joint control (Caucasus Times, September 10).
Ivanov reiterated the possibility of preemptive strikes against terrorist targets. Since Russia is fighting a war effectively declared against it by terrorists, Ivanov sees the merits of any means except nuclear weapons — all other means being “fair” (NTV, September 12). Though he gave no clues on potential targets or whether Russia would launch attacks beyond the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States, he dismissed the idea that such would necessarily involve large-scale conventional forces. “When I talk of preventative strikes, that does not at all mean that we should use military combined units, front-line aviation, warships, and so on,” Ivanov explained. What is more likely is precise use of selected special forces, and battle-hardened units drawn from the North Caucasus military district, deployed suddenly, almost without warning, in a show of force. Russia, when it does strike, cannot possibly risk any impression of failure, nor can it be seen to act in haste.
Russia is set to strike in a show of force, perhaps with greater calculation than its critics may prefer to see. But in its unilateral course of action it may need to cement ties with the leading exponent of the unilateral strategy against terror — across the Atlantic.