President Vladimir Putin won several of Russia’s international diplomatic show-downs over the past year, but some analysts believe the long-serving leader is losing a key fight in his own country. Suicide bomb attacks that hit the southern Russian city of Volgograd highlighted the shortcomings of security forces and intelligence services in a country headed by a former KGB agent known for his tough-guy approach.
North Caucasian armed groups have killed at least 2,964 people in around 100 attacks across Russia during the leadership of Putin, according to the Global Terrorism Database.
The latest victims of the violence were 34 residents of Volgograd where two suicide bomb attacks targeting the city’s main railway station and a trolleybus on December 29 and 30.
Russia doesn't negotiate with terrorists. It destroys them.
Historians trace the roots of the insurgency back to the late 19th century when North Caucasian nations started resisting the Russian empire’s efforts to force Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and North Ossetia under the Tsar’s rule.
As other former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan gained independence from the rubble of the USSR in 1991, many Chechens believed their time had come too. But the Kremlin sent tanks into the regional capital Grozny, crushing a nascent independence movement.
What began as a nationalist struggle morphed into a religiously-motivated conflict following the suppression of the independence movement, as money and fighters with Wahabi connections poured into the region.
The insurgency that began in Chechnya spread to neighbouring republics. Boris Yeltsyn, Russia’s president at the time, was seen by many as ineffective in countering the threat. And on New Year’s Eve 1999, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared on national television announcing himself as the new president. That night, he flew to Chechnya to lead the counter-insurgency campaign.
He promised to make Russia strong again; to crack down on religious fighters and separatists. In many ways, the war was his raison d’etre. Today, 14 years and many deadly attacks later, critics say Putin’s tactics have perpetuated the cycle of violence. The Russian leader threatens retribution after each attack and refuses to negotiate with the fighters, even during hostage situations.
“Russia doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. It destroys them,” Putin said after the Moscow metro bombing in February 2004.
His no-talks policy has been blamed for ending the Beslan school attack in 2004 with 344 fatalities as Putin ordered the country’s security forces to storm the building full of children surrounded by detonators without attempting negotiation.
In dealing with the Dubrovka theatre attackers in Moscow in 2002, Putin’s armed forces pumped deadly sleeping gas into the hall, stormed it and killed all the attackers. The incident left 129 theatre-goers dead in a scene of carnage critics believe could have been averted.
After the attacks, Putin put Russia’s security services through reforms aimed at preventing armed groups from repeating similar assaults with the intention of “intimidation” and “pressuring government bodies”. But analysts said the state is not equipped for eliminating suicide bombings.
“The message on the part of the Kremlin was this: Don’t allow the possibility that terrorists will dictate to the authorities what they should do,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian intelligence specialist.
Unlike attacks such as the Beslan school siege, suicide bombers don’t usually make specific political demands; Soldatov believes this leads the state to take the threat less seriously.
Experts say the country would have a better chance of ending the upsurge in attacks if the Kremlin used a different approach.
“The government have been relying on standard measures of counter-insurgency to date, with the brief exception during [President Dimitri] Medvedev’s time when he tried to address the underlying root causes such as poverty, political and economic inequality,” Dr Greg Simons, crisis management expert at Swedish National Defence College, told Al Jazeera.
Dr Simons pointed out that Putin achieved some successes in the mid-2000s when he had two rebel leaders, Maskhadov and Basayev, killed. However, he does not think Putin’s policy will to be able to reach a long-term solution as long as the root causes fuelling the insurgency remain. New recruits can easily fill the boots of assassinated rebel leaders.
“There needs to be something more done other than body counts, weapons captured, terror acts prevented. Otherwise, you get stuck in a game of perpetual catch-up and stuck in a reactive posture,” Simons said.
Kremlin will never be able to solve the problem of terrorism by using only iron-fisted measures. A wide variety of measures are needed,
A local of Dagestan – one of the cradles of insurgency – political scientist Khanzhan Kurbanov thinks the Kremlin-backed leadership in the area is part of the problem.
As part of moves to centralise his power, Putin began appointing local governors in Russia’s regions. Previously, these areas had a fair degree of political autonomy, but today their leaders are chosen by the Kremlin.
Many residents believe the appointed leaders are out of touch and haven’t properly addressed local issues.
“[The] Kremlin will never be able to solve the problem of terrorism by using only iron-fisted measures,” Kurbanov told Al Jazeera. “A wide variety of measures are needed that will include social programme, boosting the economy, and ideological work. Security forces should be used very accurately and carefully to avoid encouraging more people to support the armed groups.”
Critics say Putin uses “the fight against terrorism” for tightening his grip on the country by toughening laws and limiting powers of local governments.
“Following the Dubrovka siege, the Kremlin rolled out a tougher version of the media law. Beslan opened the way to the appointment of governors by the Kremlin and to toughening the electoral law,” said Sergei Tereshenkov, a St Petersburg-based political analyst.
After bombings in Volgograd a controversial Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed by Putin in 2007, called for “adopting a new law to increase the punishment without limits for those who not only commit a terrorist act, but also shares views of the terrorists, preaches their ideology or trains terrorists.”
A Chechen refugee, who found shelter in Finland last year, urged the government to be careful in single-handedly branding people as “terrorists”.
“On October 21, 1999 a rocket hit a market in Grozny… They later declared it was a ‘terrorist market’… They have referred to children, elderly and women, who have been trading with spices, sweets, bread, cigarettes, newspapers, etc, as ‘terrorists’,” wrote Polina Zherebtsova, who was eleven years old at the time. She witnessed the second invasion of Chechnya by Russian forces in what the Kremlin called “fighting an insurgency”.
The rocket attack left her scarred from 16 different injuries.
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