Many Russians — and much of the world — had nearly forgotten the Chechen insurgency that erupted in the 1990s. While Chechnya and swathes of the North Caucasus have remained wracked by ethnic and Islamicist violence, Moscow’s success has been to maintain a protective cordon and keep the violence confined to its southern reaches. The Kremlin’s declared end to counter-terrorism operations in April 2009, was really about it being contained, not eradicated. However, that containment was breached in November last year, when Chechen terrorists bombed a north Russian train.
The brutal bombing of the Moscow metro on Monday morning, already claimed by a pro-Chechen insurgency group on its website as its handiwork, is likely to further confirm that the North Caucasus has come to haunt Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s and President Dmitry Medvedev’s government once again.
This is not a great surprise. Russia had adopted a relatively successful no-holds-barred military strategy in the region in the past decade. But the political follow-up was uninspired. Moscow set up thuggish local rulers to keep the insurgency in line and provided them with money, arms and a blank cheque when it came to human rights and good governance — a strategy not dissimilar to what India practiced for a while in Kashmir. The goal was less about seeking a final Chechen settlement as much as trying to ensure the violence did not spread to Russia proper. The Moscow explosions indicate this half-measure has now run its course.
Messrs Putin and Medvedev now face a choice. They can fight terror with more terror and win themselves a year or so of peace. Or they can also float a genuine attempt at political reconciliation in an area of Russia that has been handed over to officially sanctioned warlords. The latter will not be easy but it holds out the only possibility of a lasting peace. There is another incentive for Moscow. There have been sketchy reports since last year that Chechen fighters based in North Waziristan, and under Taliban and al-Qaeda influence, are working their way back to Russia. A deeply alienated Chechnya will be a fruitful recruiting ground and the Moscow area a target-rich environment. If they are to secure a hold over the insurgency, Moscow will never be able to quarantine the North Caucasus. Russia needs to think more long-term if it wants to ensure this does not happen.