TCS Daily

Putin at War: Unscripted

By Ariel Cohen - September 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Three days after the tragedy of Beslan ended, we sat for over three and a half hours with Vladimir Putin. Between picking up the pieces of the worst Russian terror attack to date and planning a massive power consolidation, the energetic Russian leader still found time to meet with leading Western scholars and journalists, answering our questions at length, totally unscripted.

Unfiltered, Putin was a strange mix of tough pragmatism and Soviet nostalgia. He was shaken by walkie-talkie intercepts of terrorists shooting children in Beslan "for fun" and by the horrible conditions in northern Russian camps to which Stalin exiled the Chechens sixty years ago. "The first Chechen war was probably a mistake," Putin said. But what about the second war which he started in 1999?

He repeatedly bemoaned the passing of the Soviet "great power" -- thirteen years after its demise. He recognized that Soviet ideology suppressed real ethnic conflicts, and that new secure borders have not been erected. Yet he also questioned the sovereignty of neighboring countries such as Georgia. Today, Russia is slowly absorbing its constituent parts, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while thwarting Chechen bid to secede.

Putin missed an opportunity to reach out to the U.S. after the horror of Beslan. In response to my question, he launched a long tirade about the Soviet Union and US releasing the genie of terror out of the bottle. He believes that the Western powers are interested in keeping Russia down by supporting Chechen separatism, pointing out that Great Britain and the U.S. granted political asylum to some Chechen leaders, and that Western intelligence services maintain contacts with Chechen fighters.

As an intelligence professional, Putin should appreciate the difference between information gathering and operational support. Instead, he overstated the alleged desire of the West to create an irritant for Russia. In an earlier speech to the nation, Putin went further, saying that foreign powers are interested in dismembering Russia and neutralizing it as a nuclear power. Nevertheless, he is open to anti-terrorism cooperation, and indicated that "professionals" on both sides are engaged in just that.

Putin left enough common ground to believe that cooperation with the West in the war on terror is possible. He called President Bush a "good, decent man", a reliable and predictable partner, someone he can "feel as a human being". From his remarks, it is clear that he genuinely likes George Bush and wants to see him re-elected, something the media present at the event studiously ignored. After all, isn't it John Kerry that foreign leaders are supposed to support?

Putin mentioned three times that Russia, the U.S. and Western Europe belong to "Christian civilization and European culture," to which a prominent French writer for Le Monde commented that maybe Russia does, but not the U.S.

Putin has the global geopolitics right, especially when it comes to connections between the Chechen and other radical Islamist terrorists in the Northern Caucasus, and to global jihadi sources of funding, political-religious indoctrination, and volunteer recruitment and training.

He criticized the West for allowing fundraising for the Chechen cause from Michigan to London to Abu Dhabi, but seemed to be unaware that the U.S. Treasury recently busted Al Haramain, a Saudi global "charity" connected to Bin Laden, which was involved in supporting the Chechens.

Putin also correctly noted that the West shouldn't want to see terrorists come to power anywhere on earth, should not demand that anyone negotiate with child killers, and that it is not in Western interests to see the Russian Federation dismembered.

It is the Russian president's actions after Beslan, more than his rhetoric, which point to missed opportunities in the wake of Russia's 9/11. Instead of revamping, retraining and reorganizing Russia's anti-terrorist and security services, Putin has opted for a massive re-centralization of power. In doing so, he is taking the country back to a future reminiscent of the czarist era. Putin essentially is applying the 19th century Russian imperial model and the Soviet security state apparatus to a 21st century state rife with terror and corruption.

Nostalgia for the Soviet past may beget new authoritarianism, as Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev warned in their September 16, 2004 interviews. In this time of crisis, the Russian president has empowered himself and his inner circle, not the people of Russia. Presidential appointment of Russia's 89 regional governors instead of popular elections, and the establishment of a disempowered and toothless "public chamber" to supervise the security services instead of effective civilian controls will not solve Russia's terrorism problems.

The security services that failed to prevent or resolve the Beslan tragedy and that Putin has not reformed after five years in office are still a Soviet-style, quasi-totalitarian political control mechanism. They are not the hat Russia needs to confront modern local and global terrorism.

Islamist jihadi terrorism is a new enemy -- not the old enemy of the Cold War. In response, Russia's anti-terror approach needs to be rethought and revamped, with new structures for the 21st century, capable of dealing with global terrorism, put in place. A new anti-terror doctrine and effective organizational structure to coordinate intelligence and operations must be created. The U.S., Great Britain and Israel can offer assistance. The time for cooperation in the face of a common enemy is now.

A real challenge for the Bush Administration, however, is Russia's questioning the sovereignty of Georgia in the Caucasus, and playing fast and loose with her post-Soviet borders. In addition, by trying to pull South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Moscow's orbit, the Kremlin may be strengthening the case of Chechen separatism. This policy opens the doors to revision of other borders, such as Northern Kazakhstan, Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine, and even Nagorno-Karabakh. Undermining the territorial integrity of neighbors is unacceptable to the U.S., and dangerous for Russia.

When in crisis, countries and leaders fall back on their time-tested political instincts and patterns. Putin's re-centralization proves that Russia after its barbaric 9/11 is no exception.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation. He had tea with Putin on September 6 along with a group of foreign policy experts.


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