Russia: Death For Sale


January 26, 2011: The recent twin suicide bomber attack at a Moscow airport has put an unwelcome spotlight on several areas Russian officials prefer to keep in the shadows. For example, Russian police are accused of failing to follow up on a tip last month that two Chechen terrorist teams were being sent to Moscow to carry out attacks, and that a Chechen criminal gang had agreed to provide support. This should have been easy to follow up on. The Chechen criminal gangs have been around for decades, and the police and intel agencies often work with the gangsters, when they aren't trying to jail them or taking bribes from them. Another terrorist asset was the corruption that is still so common in Russia. Corruption at the airports is well known. A bribe can get around just about any rule or law. Chechen criminal gangs are notorious for smuggling (usually drugs, but people as well), so getting suicide bombers, wearing explosive vests, into an airport, is no problem. The reason this sort of thing does not happen more often is that most Chechen gangs are more interested in staying in business, than in supporting Islamic terrorism (which brings with it the risk of arrest in the police backlash that follows each of these attacks.) It's believed that the credible tip last month came from other Chechen gangsters who disagreed with cooperating with Islamic terrorists, mainly because it's ultimately bad for business.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin predictably vowed vengeance for the airport attack, and this is the signal for the security services to round up the usual suspects and break the rules (the few still followed) as needed to get the vengeance the boss has demanded. That predictable call for revenge is probably why no one has taken credit for the attack yet. Putin also has a fearsome reputation for taking action against criminals in the Caucasus  (mainly Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan). Last year, terrorism down there caused about 20 people dead per 100,000 population. About 48 percent of the dead were Islamic terrorists, 36 percent members of the security forces and the rest civilians. Ingushetia, which is between Chechnya and North Ossetia, has, for years, been catching the overflow of violence from Chechnya. The violence has since spread to Dagestan, east of Chechnya.

It all began when the Chechens tried, throughout the 1990s, to maintain their independence from Russia. But the Chechens could not govern themselves, and the place became a hideout for numerous criminal gangs. These guys started a kidnapping, robbery and extortion crime wave all over southern Russia. In 1999, Russia, now led by Vladimir Putin, invaded, to reassert its authority and halt the crime wave. Several years of bloody fighting followed, until a majority of the population agreed to shut down the gangsters. For the last few years, Chechnya has been at peace, at least by local standards. But many of the criminals and Islamic militants fled to neighboring "republics" (as the semi-autonomous ethnic enclaves in Russia are called). Mainly Ingushetia to the west, and Dagestan to the east. Dagestan was able to handle the influx of Chechen gunmen. But in Ingushetia, the violence keeps getting worse. Two years ago, the deaths are running at about 30 per 100,000 population. That's three times what it was in Afghanistan, and more than twice what it is in Iraq during 2008. Some of the violence is just criminal activity, because tiny (population half a million) Ingushetia has an unemployment rate of over 50 percent. But there are also Islamic radicals who used to operate in Chechnya. And then there are a lot of guns in the hands of the population, so it's often difficult to tell who shot who and why.

The Russian government blames a lot of the unrest on local officials who, while pro-Russian (and dominated by a former KGB official) are generally inept and corrupt. As these things go, the national government won't intervene unless the gangs based in Ingushetia began raiding into southern Russia. Corruption and feuds (between clans and ethnic groups) causes a lot of the violence, which is organized and focused via gangs of Islamic radicals. Most of the 4.2 million people in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are Moslem, and don't like Russians. Although the Russians have reduced the violence over the last few years, it persists, much to the embarrassment of the Russian government. This volatile mixing of organized Russians and unruly Caucasus minorities has been a problem for centuries (ever since the Russian empire reached the Caucasus two centuries ago.) Many of the largely Moslem Caucasian tribes saw it as their right to raid the Christian Russians (who had lots of stuff to steal). The Russians fought back, and violence has persisted ever since.

What's surprising is that there aren't more attacks like the recent one in Moscow. Some 14 percent of Russians are Moslem, but only some of those in the Caucasus (where a few percent of the population live) are really into Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Relations between Slav Russians and the various ancient peoples of the Caucasus (which includes Christians Georgians and Armenians, as well as Moslem Chechens and dozens of other distinct ethnic groups) have been bad for centuries. Last month, for example, there were several street brawls between Slav and Caucasus sports fans, leading to one death.

The recent appearance of a Chinese "stealth fighter" (the J-20) caused fear and embarrassment in Russia. Russia has been very openly trying to develop a competitor to the American F-22 and F-35. The Chinese J-20 project had been rumored since the late 1990s, but a secretive government released no details. It's an article of faith in Russia that the Chinese are unable to develop advanced military tech themselves, and have to buy or steal it from Russia (or the West). At first, many noted the resemblance of the J-20 to one of two Russian stealth fighter projects, the MiG I.42 (cancelled in 1997 for lack of money and progress). But now the Russians are flogging the theory that China got its stealth tech from the wreckage of an American F-117 stealth light bomber shot down over Serbia in 1999 (when both China and Russia were backing the Serbs). The F-117 was built with 1970s tech, while the I.42 was more recent, but there is the nightmare (to the Russians) possibility that the Chinese have developed new stealth technology.

A recent opinion poll showed that most Russians want the embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin removed from its mausoleum in the center of Moscow (where it has been on public display since the 1920s). But a large minority want Lenin to stay where he is, and remain more determined to keep their guy out of the ground.

January 24, 2011: Two suicide bombers set off their explosive vests in a Moscow airport, killing 36 and wounding nearly 200.

January 22, 2011: A senior police commander, in charge of an anti-corruption task force, has been ordered arrested for receiving nearly five million dollars in bribes, and demanding much more. The fight against corruption in Russia has been difficult, because so many Russians are willing to take the money, and because many of those offering the bribes threaten to kill to those who won't cooperate. The corruption extends to the senior ranks of the government, and at least makes it easier for American spies (although the rates are much higher than during the Cold War.)

January 11, 2011: In Moscow, police arrested another 20 people in an effort to prevent young gangs of Christian Slavs and Caucasus Moslems from fighting each other in the streets. The rivalry is mainly ethnic, with some loyalty to different sports teams involved.





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