Doku Umarov, the Chechen warlord who styles himself “the emir of the Caucasus,” told the Russian government this week that his jihadists were ready and willing to launch more terrorist attacks like last month’s suicide bombing of Moscow Domodedovo Airport, for which he admitted responsibility.
Sadly, his was no idle threat. Not only has Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin no credible plan to halt the attacks, his policy is making further atrocities more likely.
Putin’s initial response to Domodedovo was typical of the unthinking aggressiveness that has characterized his outlook since he rose to the presidency in 2000 with a vow to hunt down Chechen rebels and kill them “in the outhouse.”
Those behind the bombing would be caught, he said.
“Revenge is inevitable,” Putin said.
Putin also rejected the almost universal assumption that Umarov was involved, arguing there was “no relation to the Chechen republic.”
That’s because, in Putin-speak, the Chechen problem was supposedly solved several years ago.
The opposite is nearer the truth. According to the official line, the installation in Grozny of pro-Kremlin Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, whose militia has become a byword for brutality, pacified Chechnya after a decade of bloodshed.
However, Kadyrov could not prevent a daring attack on Chechnya’s parliament in October last year. Umarov’s Chechen campaign has spread extensively to neighboring republics such as Dagestan and Ingushetia, and mutated from a separatist struggle into a pan-Caucasian jihad.
Putin’s achievement, since he first became prime minister in 1999, has thus been to turn a containable local insurgency into an escalating regional war. This has led many Russians to wonder why Moscow does not just have done with it and let the north Caucasus secede.
“What are the terrorists trying to achieve by detonating bombs in the Moscow metro?” asked commentator Yulia Latynina in the Moscow Times after a previous devastating attack. “Answer: they want Allah, not Russia, to rule the north Caucasus. They hate the West and despise both Putin’s rule and democracy.”
“Under former [Russian] president Boris Yeltsin political Islam was a relatively marginal phenomenon but after 10 years of Vladimir Putin’s ‘power vertical,’ the situation has changed radically ... it seems that Russia will be forced to part with the north Caucasus in the same way that France was forced to leave Algeria,” Latynina said.
A growing number of Russians appear to share this view, judging by violent demonstrations in Moscow in December and last month.
The latest figures suggest the insurgency is intensifying. Islamist attacks were up 14 percent last year compared with 2009, nearly all in the north Caucasus. In Moscow there have been eight major terrorist attacks since 2000, including the Dubrovka Theater siege in which 800 people were taken hostage.
Facing mounting criticism at home and fears overseas about security for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 soccer World Cup, Putin has conceded new approaches may be required.
However, with parliamentary and presidential elections due by March next year, he may be tempted, as in the past, to pose as the nation’s strongman savior and launch a new military crackdown in the Caucasus. That would make more Domodedovos a near-certainty.