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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Divide and Conquer Rebels

The bomb that exploded in the passage under Pushkin Square in central Moscow this week, killing and wounding dozens of innocent civilians, may be only the beginning of a wave of terrorism that could engulf the country in the future. For almost a year, most of the nation was living in peace while Chechnya was gutted by violence, but such a situation could not last forever.

The Moscow authorities were quick to blame Chechen rebels for the bombing at Pushkin Square. But some skeptics say this latest bombing was specially organized, possibly by some fraction of the security services, to induce the public to back any future authoritarian actions by the Kremlin in exactly the same way a series of apartment block bombings last September created massive public support for the invasion of Chechnya.

Click here to read our Special Report on the bombings.

During previous years, the security services have been up to many dirty tricks, but are they actually the culprits this time? Most likely not.

Recent polls show that President Vladimir Putin has an approval rating near 80 percent; additional terrorist attacks could hardly make him more popular. It seems that in today’s society, Putin can accomplish any political coup without bloody provocations.

The attack at Pushkin Square was clearly aimed at civilians, and such actions in the past have not been standard practice of the mainstream Chechen resistance that has often used terrorist tactics, but at the same time has aimed its bombs at military targets. The Chechen president and rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov, has announced that his forces were not involved in this attack. But the Chechen resistance is splintered into many groups, including radicals who do not report to Maskhadov at all.

In fact, federal forces have been doing their best to undermine Maskhadov’s authority and splinter the resistance as much as possible. Russian generals time and again have insisted that the Chechen rebels have been broken up into small groups and lack centralized control. The Russian military command did not hide its glee when it recently reported alleged armed clashes between Chechen rebel groups. Apparently, federal authorities have hoped a disintegrated resistance movement will soon cause the rebels’ demise. Instead, relentless Russian attacks may have created an ideal breeding ground for fanatical terrorists.

In the Palestinian national movement, military setbacks and ensuing political splintering helped in the past to create some of the most ferocious terrorist groups in world history. The same may be happening today in Chechnya: As Maskhadov and other mainstream warlords who historically have disapproved of the use of extreme terrorist tactics lose credence and lose control, fanatics may be breaking loose.

During the last year, thousands of Chechens have been the objects of indiscriminate Russian bombardments, victims of torture, rape, arbitrary arrest and extortion by Russian troops. Many have scores to settle, and some may be ready to kill any Russians — including innocent civilians — in revenge attacks.

The authorities have named their operation in Chechnya "anti-terrorist," but in the end their actions may help create terrorism instead of eradicating it. Russian security services and police are badly trained, undisciplined and notoriously corrupt. If the nation is in fact being attacked today by dedicated terrorists, the result may be disastrous. Most government and public buildings in Moscow, including military headquarters, do not have security fences and are today at the mercy of any fanatic who might be planning a terrorist attack.

A year ago, most Chechens disagreed with the radical warlords that invaded Dagestan and provoked the present war. Maskhadov offered Moscow talks and the possibility of joint action against the extremists — offers that were rejected by Putin out of hand.

It would seem that today Moscow should reverse its Chechen policy and try to reestablish contact with Maskhadov and other rebel leaders who are ready to renounce indiscriminate terrorism. Instead of trying to beat the Chechens into splinter groups, Moscow should be helping Maskhadov to establish centralized command within the rebel movement.

The pro-Moscow proxies the Kremlin is promoting as leaders in Chechnya cannot control the situation nor overtake the rebels. Only by playing moderates against radicals within the rebel movement itself can Moscow hope to reverse the growing tide of terrorism and find a workable political solution for Chechnya.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst. Tensions Grow as Toll Rises To 118, The Moscow Times, Sept. 15, 1999 Moscow Awash in Explosion Theories, The Moscow Times, Sept. 14, 1999 Second Bombing Brings Terror to City, The Moscow Times, Sept. 14, 1999 Apartment Block Explodes, Dozens Dead, The Moscow Times, Sept. 10, 1999 Did Hamburger Haters Bomb Manezh?, The Moscow Times, Sept. 2, 1999 Manezh Bomb Latest in a Series of Unsolved Cases, The Moscow Times, Sept. 2, 1999 Blast Rocks Manezh Mall, Injuring 30, The Moscow Times, Sept. 1, 1999