After laying low the day of the Domodedovo bombings, Putin made an appearance:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed revenge Tuesday for the suicide bombing that killed 35 people at a Moscow airport — a familiar tough-on-terrorism stance that has underpinned his power but also led to a rising number of deadly attacks in Russia.
Revenge. Wow. Who ever thought of that before?
Like it’s worked so great so far.
That Putin has nothing better to offer than more retribution is a confession of intellectual bankruptcy.
Medvedev isn’t much better:
Medvedev on Tuesday gave a tough speech to officials at the Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor. He suggested that some of them could have been at fault and told them to do everything possible to find those responsible.
“The nest of these bandits, however they are called, should be eliminated,” he said.
Medvedev also blamed the transport police, ordering the interior minister to identify officials who should be dismissed or face other sanctions. Airport officials also did not escape blame.
“What happened shows that obviously there were violations in guaranteeing security. And it should be answered for by those who make decisions there and by the management of the airport,” he said.
Medvedev demanded robust checks of passengers and baggage at all major transportation hubs. “This will make it longer for passengers, but it’s the only way,” he said.
Beyond the fact that Medvedev is self-satirizing as a tough guy, his solution (“robust checks”) suggests that he’s channeling the TSA, which is another confession of intellectual bankruptcy. Protecting the last target. Not like there aren’t thousands more across Russia every single day of the week. Every market, every big store, every train station, every Metro stop, every bar, every restaurant, every sporting event–every one a target. So you make an airport–or even all airports–impenetrable. So what. The terrorists will just work their way down the target list, probably figuring that variety is the spice of life–or death, in the event–anyways.
The Israelis and Americans (in Iraq, especially) found through painful experience that fighting asymmetric threats is first and foremost an intelligence campaign. You don’t defend, you attack–precisely, based on information painstakingly collected and analyzed. You need to get highly granular information, especially on the leadership of the terrorists and on the engineers–the bombmakers, communications experts, moneymen. And on the people they interact with, and on their families and contacts. You constantly add to that information and exploit it to target the leadership and the engineers. You kill or capture those you can, but if you don’t, at least relentlessly harry them to disrupt their planning and operations. You need to get inside their OODA loop. Where this has happened, in the West Bank and central Iraq and Anbar, for instance, terrorist activity has been reduced sharply. Where it hasn’t–Pakistan, most notably–the problem is still chronic.
And it is chronic in Russia–so draw your own conclusions. Despite the fact that they can operate with an impunity that the Americans and Israelis cannot and do not, Russia’s vaunted security services have not been able to do this. Revenge and retribution will accomplish little.
A new meme is that the airport attack was targeted at Russia’s palpably desperate attempts to attract new investment (h/t R). This may be an effect of the blast, but I seriously doubt that was the bombers’ calculation. This meme reveals more about Russia’s economic anxiety than it does about the designs of the Chechens. It is telling indeed that from the very first–mere minutes after the attack–a good deal of commentary about the bombing focused on the implications of the attacks for Russia’s investment prospects. This tells me that this concern is foremost in the minds of the Russian elite, which in turn tells me that there is deep unease about the economic situation.
This reminds me of a story–somewhat off-color, so warning to those easily offended–that famous combat cartoonist Bill Mauldin tells in his book.* He described how he observed in Italy that when under shellfire men put their hands over the body parts that they valued most. Older men shielded their eyes. The 18 year olds shielded their jewels. We see now what the Russian elite really worries about losing.
The yawning gap between words and deeds that I mentioned in yesterday’s post is drawing considerable attention in some Russian commentary. Time–miracles never cease–does a pretty good job of reporting this:
Taken together, these failures form a lengthening indictment of the ruling duo’s approach to the Caucasus dilemma.
. . . .
Russia’s leaders are left with few options when it comes to the Caucasus. They may no longer even have words. “The macho line can’t work this time, not even for Putin,” says Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst in Moscow. “You can’t pound your chest for the 150th time when the past 149 times have failed to bring any results. The Russian people can’t be fooled by this anymore.”
So as Monday’s airport bombing pushes the issue of security back to the center of the national debate, Putin and Medvedev are likely to find their usual methods dulled. They could look for scapegoats among their deputies, or they could again promise to annihilate the terrorists in the most colorful way they can think of. But neither of these maneuvers will do much to convince the Russian public that the terrorist threat is under control. The bombings are already convincing them of the opposite.
Truth be told, I really don’t think the Russian people have been fooled. I think the real question is whether they are going to do anything about it. Will they finally start singing “Won’t Get Fooled Again?”
Specifically, are they going to demand accountability, and not just of the poor schmuck who is head of security at Domodedovo–but all the way to the top of the vertical? Are they going to question the perverse priorities, with the security forces going non-linear on rag-tag groups of peaceful protesters, jailing and harassing opposition leaders, while real threats to public safety can strike at the heart of the country (not just the airport, but the Nevsky Express–twice–the Moscow metro, Nord Ost Theater in Moscow, etc.)?
A friend tells me that there’s a Russian proverb that you get the priest that you deserve. Well, quite often you get the government you deserve too. Apathy, fatalistic shoulder shrugging at the inability of the authorities to deliver on their basic responsibilities, indifference to the one-way accountability in government, all just ensure that things will go on as before. If Russia is going to change, that change is not going to come from the top. It will have to come from a populace that demands something other than doing the same thing over and over with no good result. Which means that if history is any guide, alas, change is not likely to come.
There is an international dimension to this enabling as well.
International organizations–most notably international sport organizations–have put tremendous amount of trust in Putin’s ability to secure the safety of events like the World Cup and the 2014 Winter Olympics. The latter is particularly problematic, since Sochi is right in the terrorists’ neighborhood (though as events have shown they can strike far from the Caucasus). Nonetheless, the IOC says it has “no doubt” that Russia will be able to ensure the Olympics are safe and secure.
How can such trust possibly be warranted? Russians should ask: if Putin can indeed protect visitors at the World Cup and the Olympics, as he must have promised to the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, why can’t he protect us? And the IOC and FIFA should ask given the routine failures of the Russian government in its efforts to combat terrorism, are Putin’s promises any good? Or are the bribes just too big to pass up to raise such awkward questions?
So look to see what happens in the coming weeks. If it is just more talk of retribution from the top and world-weary apolitical apathy from the rest, you’ll know that Russia will remain on the hamster wheel from hell for the foreseeable future.
* I think it was in The Brass Ring, but it might have been Up Front. I read both years ago, and the story stuck with me. Go figure.