Kidnappings and executions in war-torn Iraq are hardly a novelty, but last month Moscow had its first brush with the problem. On June 3, one Russian diplomat was shot dead and four others kidnapped; on June 19, the Mujahideen Shura Council, a grouping linked to al-Qaeda, demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and threatened to execute the hostages. On June 25, it released a video showing brief interviews with each of the four diplomats and then the brutal murders of three men. While no bodies have been recovered, and the three murdered men shown on the video had their faces covered, on June 26, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the death of all four hostages (Lenta.ru, June 27).
In Russia’s tightly managed political system, the kidnapping certainly qualified as an emergency, and, as with every crisis, it tells more about the decision-making mechanism than the decision-makers actually want to tell. Until the tragic resolution, official information had been kept to the absolute minimum, while the mainstream media had provided as little coverage as decently possible. The prevailing interpretation was that the Russians were attacked by mistake, and President Vladimir Putin himself mentioned to journalists that the attack had been not a planned ambush, as initially reported, but an opportunistic hit and that it was hardly possible to identify the Russians based on their license plates (Kommersant, June 17). That version of unfolding events created hopes that when the attackers figured out that their victims were not Western “occupiers,” they would release them; this is how events played out in May 2004, when two technicians working for the company Interenergoservice were kidnapped but set free after one week (Gazeta.ru, June 21). Quite possibly, the same feeling of being reasonably safe since Russia was not a party to the Iraq conflict might have tempted the Russian diplomats to stop at a small shop, breaching security protocols that stipulated armed protection (Ezhednevny zhurnal, June 30).
The brutal murders triggered a strong but questionable political reaction. Meeting with Saudi Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Saud in Moscow, Putin announced that he had ordered Russian special services to find and exterminate the perpetrators (Vremya novostei, June 29). After a meeting of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, director of the FSB, confirmed that the order “fits into the logic of our actions” and announced a reward of $10 million for usable information (Kommersant, July 1). Putin’s instructions may indeed follow the logic of “wiping out the terrorists,” but it clearly goes beyond legal boundaries. According to the law “On Countering Terrorism,” approved in March this year, the president cannot direct any forceful actions outside Russia’s territory without parliamentary consent. However, Sergei Mironov, the chairman of the Federation Council, immediately expressed his readiness to revise the law accordingly (RosBusinessConsulting, June 30). If this legislation is indeed passed, Putin would be granted unrestricted and permanent authority to order special operations against suspected terrorists anywhere in the world. It is rather improbable that it would result in the successful elimination of any member of the Shura in Iraq, but such carte blanche might be useful in other cases where accusations are difficult to prove but an assassination would be politically expedient.
What is even more remarkable about the immediate response to this crisis is the barely camouflaged desire to put the blame on the United States. The point is not that the coalition forces are responsible for the safety of the diplomatic corps and, it might be possible to argue, did not do enough to rescue the Russians. In fact, through the weeks of silence regarding the hostage drama Russian officials kept dropping hints that their Islamic “friends” should secure the release of the diplomats who had been mistaken for “enemies.” It is unclear whether expectations were pinned on Iran, which should be grateful to Russia for protecting it against the threat of sanctions, or on Syria, which depends upon importing Russian arms, or perhaps on the leadership of Hamas, which was rescued from international ostracism by an invitation to Moscow (Kommersant, June 29). What is clear is that Moscow really thought that its demonstrated respect towards the Muslim world would make it safe against Islamic extremism.
The lack of any terrorist attacks in Moscow since summer 2004 has underpinned this wishful thinking, while the escalation of instability in the North Caucasus is commonly downplayed as a “local” phenomenon. For the Russian leadership, it was also much easier to see a growing reputation in the Islamic world as the tensions in relations with the Western world escalate. In the run-up to the G-8 summit, U.S. and European criticism of Moscow for curtailing democratic reforms is interpreted as “lecturing” or “interference,” and warnings about violations of human rights are seen as “ultimatums.” Vladislav Surkov, the chief ideologist of “Putinism,” has recently assured Western journalists that Russia firmly rejects the “standard model of inefficient and externally controlled economic and political regimes” (Vedomosti, June 29). Following this logic, it is not difficult to arrive at the proposition that Washington, worried about Russia’s “sovereign power,” is seeking to pull it into the U.S. “civilizational” conflict with the Muslim world. That is the real point in carefully channeling the public anger over the murders in Iraq towards the convenient and exploitable anti-Americanism (Ekho Moskvy, June 29).
The Russian president may not succeed in apprehending the culprits, but “Comrade Wolf” will certainly not fool him. The day after the tragedy in Iraq was confirmed, Putin asserted that Russia “will not take part in any kind of ‘holy alliance’,” and he emphasized specifically that in relations with the United States, “There is still much to change.” The changes he seeks basically amount to closing the issue of Russia’s retreat from democracy, and the “holy alliance” he rejects so emphatically is in essence the community of liberal democracies. There is certainly nothing holy about this community, it is often disagreeable and has its share of poor leadership, but that is where Russia belongs, and al-Qaeda knows that. Seeking to prove the opposite, Putin makes himself an entirely forgettable figure in Russian history, and journalists might soon be asking: “Who was Mr. Putin?”