Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 188

Terrorism, counterterrorism and the operational grey zone between the two loom large in the history of the Russian state. Modern terrorism itself is a creation of Russian revolutionaries at the end of the nineteenth century. Its target, the Tsarist state, developed counterterrorism techniques, essential among which was the use of agents, provocateurs and manipulation of terrorist violence. Eventually, Russian state authorities learned to use some terrorist groups for the state’s purposes, against its actual, potential or perceived opponents. In areas contiguous to Russia, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Russian state from time to time financed, armed and officered militant groups that wreaked havoc, not only on the targeted state’s authorities, but even more on the civilian populations.

The Soviet state, heir to both the revolutionary and the Tsarist state traditions, not only built on those techniques, but extended them worldwide as an integral component of its policy. With the demise of the Soviet Union, Moscow scaled back those activities drastically, in keeping with its reduced objectives and resources. From 1992 on, the use of terrorist groups remained an integral component of Moscow’s policy in parts of the “near abroad” only. The West, no longer exposed to Moscow’s use of terrorist groups, has been slow to recognize its continued use in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, in forms adapted to local conditions.

The overall policy paradigm can be described as exploitation of “controlled instability.” It variously aims to maintain or restore control over independence-minded countries, to intimidate those countries’ leaderships and in almost all cases to justify a Russian military presence or reentry. Local instability clears the way for the emergence of terrorist groups and their use. Such instability can variously stem from internal conditions, external fanning or a mix of the two.

For efficient political exploitation, instability must be kept at controllable levels. That, as the experience of the past decade shows, enables Moscow to cast itself as arbiter in the local conflicts and attempt to extract concessions from the legitimate state leaders, in return for restraining the violent groups under its control. Uncontrollable groups are of little use in this regard. In some cases–that of certain Chechen commanders comes to mind–those groups can alternate between controlled and uncontrolled behavior, which in turn results alternately in gains and painful setbacks to Moscow.

Local conditions and the Soviet legacy have spawned three types of terrorism in post-Soviet countries: ethnically generated in Georgia’s Abkhazia region, religiously packaged in Uzbekistan, and clan- and drug-based in Tajikistan. Armed secessionist movements seized territories and acquired institutionalized forms, with visible Russian support, in parts of Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

These countries–together with their GUUAM partners Ukraine and Uzbekistan–seek to broaden the internationally accepted definition of terrorism, so as to include “armed separatism” and ethnic cleansing. These two forms of terrorism are, in the post-Soviet space, overlapping with state terrorism, because of Russia’s military involvement in Transdniester and Abkhazia, and Russia’s and Armenia’s military involvement in the Karabakh conflict. Within CIS forums, Russia and its closest allies oppose the GUUAM countries’ attempts to broaden the CIS definition of terrorism. By the same token, Russia’s share of responsibility in those violent secessions has complicated the GUUAM countries’ attempts to persuade the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other bodies to condemn at least morally the armed secessionism and ethnic cleansing in the post-Soviet space.

In eastern Moldova, the direct Russian military intervention has been followed since 1992 by institutionalization of a security apparatus under Russian ex-KGB officers. These remain citizens of Russia and, without doubt, beneficiaries of Russia’s intelligence budget. The leader of this group, former major now Major-General Vladimir Antyufeyev, and his closest associates were implicated in violent acts against civilians in 1991 in the Baltic states.

In Georgia, President Eduard Shevardnadze has been targeted by commissioned terrorists through a bomb attack in 1995 and a fusillade in 1998. Organizers and accomplices are traceable to Russia, where the primary accused in the 1995 plot, Igor Giorgadze, continues to enjoy the authorities’ protection.

Abkhazia provides a case study in the risky sponsorship of uncontrollable terrorist groups. In this case, Chechen militants were initially used as proxies. Russia’s military intelligence recruited, armed and trained the approximately 1,000-strong Chechen legion, commanded by Shamil Basaev and Ruslan Gelaev, and threw it into battle in Abkhazia alongside Russia’s own military against Georgia in 1992-93. That force became the core of the Chechen forces which, ultimately, turned against its original sponsors–not least because of those sponsors’ heavy-handed blunders in their treatment of Chechnya after 1993. That unplanned turn, however, could no longer affect Moscow’s strong position in Abkhazia.

The Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan (IMU) is no Russian proxy. It has, rather, been used as an ad-hoc auxiliary, as part of a strategy to create controlled instability in and around Uzbekistan, and thus induce President Islam Karimov to come to terms with Moscow. In 1999 and again in 2000, IMU’s armed groups made incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, regularly crossing back and forth the Afghan-Tajik, Tajik-Kyrgyz and Tajik-Uzbek borders. Those borders are guarded by thousands of Russian troops and Russian-controlled Tajik troops. In several cases, those troops actually escorted IMU detachments on their return to wintering places in Afghanistan. The IMU, moreover, set up base camps inside Tajikistan. The Russian forces in that country could easily have suppressed IMU’s camps from the air, but left them undisturbed.

Russia’s sole close ally in the region, Tajikistan, has meanwhile become the primary corridor for the narcotics traffic from Afghanistan into Russia and further to Europe. The United Nations and other international authorities cite staggering figures on the heroin and opium traffic via Tajikistan. The drugs make their way past Russian border troops on the Afghan-Tajik border. Inside Tajikistan, the authorities are massively complicit with the drug-trading networks. According to many Western observers, up to one-third of Tajikistan’s annual gross domestic product comes from the drug trade, with the authorities themselves sharing in the profits.

Russia itself is badly hurt by this unforeseen turn of events, which it unwittingly helped precipitate. The current ruling group in Tajikistan originated in a paramilitary movement, armed by Moscow to fight “Islamic fundamentalists.” This group, narrowly based on the Kulob clan, is to this day kept in power by the Russian military. The government’s control of the country is precarious and significantly dependent on deals with local drug barons, who in turn command paramilitary groups. To all intents and purposes, Moscow has farmed out the government to the leading clan, and the latter has in turn farmed out portions of the country and of the economy to drug networks which straddle the Afghan-Tajik border. In this case, the strategy of controlled instability comes close to getting out of control.