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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Palestine or Worse

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Reports on the terrorist attack at Tushino and the thwarted bombing on Tverskaya Ulitsa generally failed to mention that the war in Chechnya is still officially referred to as a "counter-terrorist operation." Back in 1999, the Kremlin announced that its decision to occupy Chechnya was a response to the apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk. Vladimir Putin explained that only by reasserting control over the rebellious republic could the government protect Russian citizens from terrorist attacks.

An unspoken compact between the Russian people and their leaders has been in effect ever since. The people have come to terms with the fact that Russian soldiers must die to prevent the "terrorist contagion" from spreading beyond the borders of Chechnya. But the recent bombings in Moscow make clear that this strategy -- if the Kremlin ever seriously attempted to implement it -- is fatally flawed.

Military operations have almost entirely destroyed Chechnya's infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people have died. Yet terrorist organizations still have the capacity to strike anywhere in Russia. Their command system, financial channels and network of accomplices and recruiters all remain in place.

The leadership of Russia's security apparatus seems not to appreciate just how much the situation has changed. They stress their officers' effectiveness in repelling the bomb attacks. If that policeman in Tushino hadn't been on his toes, many more civilians would have died. Prompt suspension of cellular telephone service possibly prevented the organizers of the attack from ordering further strikes. On Tverskaya, officers managed to take the bomber alive. Now the Federal Security Service, or FSB, has a unique opportunity to obtain information about the terrorists.

Statements like these create the impression that we're dealing with a natural disaster that cannot be prevented, not flesh-and-blood terrorists. Yet the authorities' primary responsibility is to prevent terrorist attacks before they happen, not just to pick up the pieces afterwards.

The authorities actually seem uninterested in the real reasons for the appearance of female suicide bombers on the streets of Moscow. Security service officials spin a dubious yarn about how the fighters kidnap women, rape and beat them, get them hooked on narcotics and gradually turn them into obedient robots. Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov mentioned in passing that his ministry had known for several months that a terrorist group was training female suicide bombers in Russia -- as if it were no big deal. The security establishment seems to assume that they're dealing with a small band of desperados who, while dangerous, do not have much clout within Chechnya.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's point man on Chechnya, said recently that the situation in the republic could develop along the lines of the "Palestinian scenario." He cited the terrorist attacks in Moscow as evidence that the Chechen resistance is part of a worldwide terrorist network. That's only partly true. Chechnya certainly attracts its share of Muslim fanatics, and the fighters clearly receive financial and logistical support from extremists in the Middle East and Central Asia. But that doesn't get to the heart of the matter.

Four years of war in Chechnya have produced plenty of people prepared to become kamikazes. The Palestinians fought with Israel for half a century before their people were embittered enough to blow themselves up. This bitter hostility has now become a key factor in Chechnya. It's no secret that the Russian security services couldn't even deal with "traditional" terrorism. Neither the FSB nor the Interior Ministry was able to build a network of agents in Chechnya. Without such a network, Putin's promise "to waste the bandits in the outhouse" will never be more than empty rhetoric. The lack of reliable intelligence has foiled Moscow's attempts to destroy rebel leaders and compromised its ability to avert rebel strikes. Federal forces have tried to compensate with massive air and artillery strikes on Chechen cities and brutal "sweep operations" in the villages. And they have enjoyed limited success.

Female suicide bombers greatly complicate the situation. The terrorists have seized the initiative. Israel's experience makes clear that it is next to impossible to stop a suicide bomb attack once the terrorist is on the move. If three dozen suicide bombers were sent into the Russian provinces, where the local FSB and police have no experience dealing with terrorism, the lives of thousands would be at risk.

Combatting terrorism in Russia could prove even more complicated than in Israel. In the Middle East, terrorist groups for the most part answer to the political leadership of Palestine. This gave the United States the lever it needed to pressure the terrorists into ceasing their attacks. But Chechen terrorist groups answer to no one. At one point, Russia's top brass proudly reported to Putin that they had wiped out organized resistance in Chechnya. But in so doing, they deprived themselves of the ability to exert any influence whatsoever on the fighters in the field. The result is that, just as before, Moscow has only one weapon in its arsenal -- violence, which drives more and more people into the arms of the terrorists.

Alexander Golts, deputy editor of Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.