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Putin and Bush in Common Cause? Russia’s View of the Terrorist Threat After September 11

Fiona Hill

When Russian President Vladimir Putin picked up the phone to express his sympathy to President Bush in the aftermath of September 11 and then followed up by providing concrete assistance to the campaign in Afghanistan and quickly acquiescing to U.S. plans to establish bases in central Asia, Washingon policymakers and analysts concluded Putin had made a strategic, even historic, choice to align Russia’s foreign policy with that of the United States. It was a reasonable conclusion to make.

From the beginning of his presidency in January 2000, Putin pushed the idea of a concerted campaign against terrorism with American and European leaders. He was one of the first to raise the alarm about terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and to warn of linkages between these camps, well-financed terrorist networks, and Islamic militant groups operating in Europe and Eurasia. Russia also actively supported the Northern Alliance in its struggle with the Taliban in Afghanistan. In December 2000, Moscow joined Washington in supporting United Nations sanctions against the Taliban and later appealed for sanctions against Pakistan for aiding the Taliban. After the attacks on the United States, Putin went so far as to suggest he had been expecting a massive terrorist strike—it had only been a matter of time. The events of September 11 were a shock, but not a surprise. Putin’s support for Bush was consistent with his efforts to draw world attention to the terrorist threat.

The terrorist attacks also came at a time when Putin was trying to improve Russia’s relationship with the United States. After a rocky start with the Bush administration—marked by spy scandals and a dispute over U.S. intentions to build a missile defense shield and withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—Putin had worked hard to build a personal affinity with Bush, remove the sense of confrontation, underscore that the Cold War was finally over, and find some mechanism for transcending differences. After September 11, it seemed that the war against terrorism could be just that mechanism. Russia and the United States had finally made common cause.

Common cause, however, assumes both parties have a shared view of the problem and the potential range of solutions. Unfortunately, Putin and Bush do not see terrorism in the same way. The terrorist threat to Russia is not equivalent to the threat to the United States, and Russia’s responses to terrorism have differed from America’s.

Like the United States, Russia sees its primary threats as emanating no longer from other states, but from an array of transnational actors. Yet, beyond the dangers posed by al Qaeda and the Taliban, the United States and Russia see terrorism quite differently. In fact, Putin’s and the Russian public’s view of the terrorist threat remains largely unchanged since September 11. It is narrow and specific to Russia, not to the United States.

The Threat Within

Russian discussions of the threat of terrorism quickly become muddled with concerns about religious extremism, “banditry” and criminality (frequently used in conjunction with the Chechens), general social disorder, and the rupture of national unity. Russians see the state as under attack not from the outside, but from the inside, as a result of its military, political, and economic weakness. Unlike the United States, Russia is not so much being targeted by terrorism as inadvertently spawning it. State failure, not success, is the root of Russia’s terrorist threat.

In the 1990s, political instability and increasing poverty and inequality in Russia and Eurasia provided a fertile ground for the germination of radical groups and the infiltration of foreign Islamic networks. The revival of Islam after the collapse of the USSR attracted funding from the Middle East and Asia for new mosques, religious schools, and cultural programs. Violent secessionist conflicts in the South Caucasus, civil war in Tajikistan, and two wars in Chechnya also drew funding—but for weapons and military training. The conflicts also brought religious fighters from other wars. As both casualties and economic, political, and social problems mounted, disaffected Muslim groups in Eurasia became increasingly radicalized.

Author

Today President Putin and Russian policymakers see religious conflict as a serious threat to the state. The conflict is not between confessions, but within one faith—Islam—which is an officially recognized “Russian” religion. Russia’s estimated 20 million Muslims (a much disputed figure) have centuries-old roots, although the 1990s religious revival also produced recent converts. Russian leaders depict the struggle as one between traditional communities and well-financed foreign Islamic networks, which have exploited Russia’s weakness to infiltrate its Muslim communities and promote “alien” and politically radical forms of Islam.

In the 1990s, these alien, political forms of Islam were collectively and loosely termed “Wahhabi,” in reference to an austere, reformist branch of Islam that emerged in Saudi Arabia in the 1700s. Russian leaders rarely referred to specific Islamic or terrorist networks, but after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, they complained that Afghan-trained militants and mercenaries from the Balkans and the Middle East had moved into Chechnya. The actual numbers and provenance of these fighters among the forces in Chechnya remained uncertain, but discussions usually centered on the figure of “Khattab,” an Arab who joined the Chechens in 1995 during the first war with Moscow and was killed in March. Russian officials described Khattab and his close associate, Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, as having “tens,” sometimes “hundreds,” of Arab and other foreign nationals at their command. Some Chechen fighters were also described as having been trained in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries, and the foreign-trained and financed forces were on occasion referred to as “Afghans” (although not in reference to their ethnicity), adding further confusion.

Since September 11, an explicit linkage has been made between fighters in Chechnya and al Qaeda. The press commonly describes al Qaeda forces captured and killed in Afghanistan as a mixture of Arabs, Pakistanis, and Chechens, though there has been no unofficial or official confirmation of ethnic Chechens in Afghanistan or among the al Qaeda detainees in the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay. Last February and March, al Qaeda forces were also reported to have fled Afghanistan to seek refuge among the Chechen population in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, again without explicit information on the numbers of fighters involved or their ethnic origin.

In many respects, the Wahhabi and al Qaeda-Chechen linkages are a red herring. The real concern in Moscow is not the activities of a handful of terrorists, but the radicalization of Russia’s Muslim communities by foreign influences. Russia is especially worried about areas where Muslims are compactly settled: in the North Caucasus (including Chechnya and Dagestan) and the Volga region (including Tatarstan). Moscow believes politicized religious identity could produce demands for separate Islamic statelets, just as earlier political demands from ethnic groups led to secessionist movements, and will lead to more violent conflicts. Indeed, in spring 1999, local authorities engaged in a standoff with “Wahhabi” villages in Dagestan, where the inhabitants had amassed weapons, and also demanded political and economic concessions. In August 1999, forces led by Shamil Basayev invaded Dagestan to support the “Wahhabis,” providing one of the triggers for a new war between Moscow and Chechnya.

Dealing with the Threat

Although the Russian government demanded that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov repudiate terrorism and sever ties with Basayev and Khattab and has actively supported U.S. efforts to eradicate al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan, it has not claimed that terrorists are operating elsewhere in Russia; nor has it launched further military campaigns. Instead, Moscow’s focus is on providing financial, material, and political support to traditional Muslim groups and marginalizing and forcing out foreign groups. Like the United States, the Russian government is trying to cut off the financial sources for the externally sponsored Islamic networks operating within its borders, but it is also promoting and sponsoring official Muslim movements, mosques, and religious schools and courting and co-opting domestic Muslim leaders. Putin has been increasingly careful to underscore that the war in Chechnya is waged against foreign-sponsored terrorists, not law-abiding Russian Muslims. In June 2000, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, the former Mufti of Chechnya and a vocal opponent of “Wahhabism,” was installed as Moscow’s administrator of Chechnya. In March 2001, Iranian President Khatami (an important Islamic ally for Russia) was encouraged to visit a new Islamic University in Tatarstan’s capital, Kazan. And in December 2001, a new minister for minority and religious affairs was appointed to coordinate the government’s efforts.

September 11 did not change how Russia sees and is dealing with its terrorist threat. Russians expect more of the same, not something different. Acts of terror and politically and commercially motivated assassinations were a fact of life in Russia in the 1990s and continue today. Apartment building bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999 brought political violence to a new level and increased public vigilance, but Russian homeland security has not been noticeably reinforced since then. Security is still lax at airports—woefully so for flights to the United States—and in public buildings, although some attempts have been made to install new screening devices in government agencies. There are no real signs of increased police presence on city streets. In spite of Chechen attempts to plant a “dirty bomb” in Moscow’s Izmailovo Park in 1995 (using radioactive material from a hospital), mishaps with anthrax, and international concerns about the safety of Russia’s military arsenals, Russians do not perceive an increased risk that weapons of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack against them. In short, American fears about the next round of terror do not resonate with the Russian public.

The Threat Ahead

In fact, Putin now finds himself in something of a quandary. As the months have passed since September 11, the campaign in Afghanistan has progressed, and the United States has moved on to tackle the tentacles of al Qaeda in the Philippines, Yemen, and on Russia’s borders in Georgia, and to contemplate a preemptive strike against Iraq, Russian and American purposes have diverged. Putin prides himself on Russia’s intelligence capabilities. Russian leaders think they know their enemy, and it is certainly not in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. While Russian intelligence officials concede that U.S. concerns about Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction have merit, they feel the threat can be contained and managed. From its perspective, Russia sees Iran as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, not as a state sponsor of terrorism. North Korea is an unstable neighbor, but not a military threat. In other words, Bush’s axis of evil is not Putin’s.

For Putin, his association with Bush’s war on terrorism has become something unpredictable, which could destabilize the entire region to Russia’s south in the Middle East. Beyond Afghanistan and tackling al Qaeda, Putin and Bush have no common cause. Although Putin will not risk a rift with Bush, he will certainly seek to disassociate Russia from any U.S. action in Iraq. When he picked up the phone on September 11, Putin knew the limits of Russia’s terrorist threat. Now, he fears not what the terrorists will do next, but where and how America will strike in the war on terrorism and what impact it will have on Russia.