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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Propping Up Putin's Myth

The Beslan hostage crisis exposed the weakness and inefficiency of President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian and ostensibly tightly controlled regime. Putin's dictatorial rule and repression of the media, along with the corruption of law enforcement and the judiciary, elicited only disjointed, ineffective protests in the West. The West does not speak with one voice: The German government, composed of Social Democrats and Greens, continues to support Putin's policies publicly. The financial community, from the president of the World Bank to business leaders and investment analysts, has expressed similar indifference.

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The people who made billions in deals with Saddam Hussein, who do business in Nigeria and Venezuela and who support cooperation with China despite its dismal human rights record are not going to get worked up when Putin cracks down on a few pesky journalists. If the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians in Chechnya isn't enough to make Russia an international outcast, it's hard to know what could. Some sources put the civilian death toll in Chechnya in the hundreds of thousands. The government has never conducted a comprehensive count, and no one seems to care.

Meanwhile, Putin seems strong and in charge. Only the regime's undeniable show of weakness during the showdown in Beslan caused a stir in the West. The high-ranking Western experts who swarmed into Moscow after Beslan to assess the damage for their governments and investment firms all told me more or less the same story: The scene in Beslan was horrifying -- armed men running around firing their weapons. No organization, no discipline and no leadership. Are things really this bad? Is the Russian government really this incompetent?

For years now, I have been telling the same story: The Russian military and security services are in a tailspin. Morale, professionalism and equipment are falling apart because of rampant corruption, poor leadership and inadequate funding. The rot set in in the 1990s and has accelerated under Putin as the unending, dirty war in Chechnya continues to undermine morale.

Putin's incompetent dictatorial regime promotes rampant corruption and increasingly bad governance. The decay has been effectively covered up by Kremlin-controlled propaganda, which paints a rosy picture of Russia reasserting itself. Meanwhile, sky-high world oil prices create the illusion of a successfully developing economy.

Foreigners and Russians alike have allowed Putin to do as he likes, provided that he increase stability, predictability and security -- along with high returns on investments. Profits remain high today, but security and stability have proven to be an illusion.

Putin's response to Beslan was predictable: He moved to suppress the last remnants of democracy. The Kremlin will appoint regional leaders. National and regional parliamentary elections will be tightly controlled shams. In theory, the unelected "public chamber" will advise the Kremlin; in fact, it will subjugate independent civic organizations.

Polls show that a majority of Russians oppose Putin's proposed reforms. Opposition has even appeared within the corrupt political and business elite. Putin has failed to deliver the promised stability, predictability and security, and this has led to an acute political crisis.

Putin today, like U.S. President George W. Bush in September 2001, is under enormous pressure to take drastic action, to hit back and achieve a clear-cut victory -- as the United States did in Afghanistan -- that will galvanize the country and restore the myth of a strong Russia. In 1999, federal troops invaded Chechnya, demolished and captured Grozny and united the country around Putin. Where should the troops be sent now?

The security services have put forward a plan -- approved in principle by the Kremlin -- to use twin spin machines, the Foreign Ministry and the state-controlled media, to blacken the image of Chechen separatists worldwide. At the same time, separatist leaders will be eliminated in a series of "Israeli-style" assassinations.

But assassinations take time to prepare, and when assassins are caught abroad, it can cause extreme embarrassment for the Kremlin. There are now strong indications that, in desperation, the Kremlin is seriously considering an attack on Georgia involving aerial bombing and even the use of ground troops to take out suspected Chechen strongholds. Such a move would be sheer madness, but in a crisis dictatorships tend to behave self-destructively.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.