Center for Strategic Decision Research


Russia's Response to Terrorism: The Need for a New Approach

Dr. Andrei Piontkovskiy
Director, Strategic Studies Center, Moscow

After the latest terrorist attack in Moscow, we are again hearing proposals to bring back the death penalty. There are calls to “Torch them with a red hot iron" and to “Go to the end.” There are demands for applying the principle of collective responsibility to entire ethnic groups (which in mass consciousness means “Beat up the blacks”). On the first page of our largest-circulation newspaper we see a father, whose son died in the latest tragedy, saying, “I now want to kill all of them, anyplace I see them.” We can only feel sympathy for this grief-stricken man. But with calls to “Go to the end" we are again trying to obliterate from our memories the fact that we have already “gone to the end” more than once, and that we have already torched everything we could. We are forgetting that we have already applied the death penalty in advance, as a preventive measure, against tens of thousands of peaceful fellow citizens. We are also forgetting that on the other side there are undoubtedly quite a few people who are saying about us Russians, “I now want to kill all of them, anyplace I see them.” Without understanding these realities it is impossible to grasp the true nature of the terrorism that threatens us or to find effective defenses. 


In its twentieth-century form, terrorism was usually a means to an end, a tool for achieving concrete political goals. In dozens of armed conflicts, separatists such as the IRA or the Basques used terror along with other methods to win independence or autonomy from a central government. But in the twenty-first century we are confronting a new phenomenon, which I would conditionally call “metaphysical terrorism.” This new form of terrorism, practiced mainly by radical Islamists such as Al-Qaeda, does not even present specific demands, such as the release of a prisoner or the independence of a region. As a matter of principle it simply denies Western civilization the right to exist, and seeks its total destruction. 

That distinction is crucial. For a long time we confronted a Chechen independence movement that in specific situations sometimes used terror as a means to an end. But the challenge facing us now is one of metaphysical terrorism, and to a large extent it is we ourselves who have brought that challenge into being. We have constantly repeated that we are fighting not Chechen separatism but international terrorism, and this has finally become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thanks to the methods that we have used in this war, we have turned almost the entire populace of Chechnya into our enemies. We have created a huge reserve of living bombs, desperate people ready to carry out the plans of worldwide metaphysical terrorism. 

Consider what our head of state said right after the metro explosion: that Russia does not negotiate with terrorists but destroys them. It seems to me that this phrase reveals precisely his lack of understanding of the type of terror we now confront. His wording would have been perfectly “a propos” (though debatable) if the authorities had received a phone call from some “liberation front” right after the explosion, declaring, “It was we who blew up the subway. If you do not carry out such and such demands within two weeks, we will blow up something else. We propose that you negotiate with us.” But for a long time there have been no such communications, so the words of our head of state make no sense. And the terrorists’ answer to his words has simply been silence—the meaning of which is, “We do not negotiate with Russians, we blow them up in their metro.” 

Of course we can tell ourselves if we like that we do have a message from the terrorists: the European parliament’s resolution calling on us to negotiate. If we seriously believe that, let’s torch the European parliament with a red hot iron.


Let me suggest a thought that may be paradoxical. The classic enemies with whom we have long fought, the Chechen separatists led by Maskhadov and the like, have objectively become our allies in the fight against global terrorism—because global terrorism is now destroying, first and foremost, Chechnya itself. We can still try to separate Chechen separatism from global terrorism; as a political task this is far from unsolvable. But nobody in Chechnya who is offering any kind of concrete proposal, including Maskhadov, is now insisting on full independence. In general the words “independence” and “territorial integrity” have simply lost their meanings in the face of the tragedy that has befallen both the Chechens and ourselves. The only thing that makes sense now is a radical change in our government’s treatment of the Chechen populace, a full halt to the abuses being committed by the federal armed forces and the Kadyrov gunmen, and a willingness to negotiate with anyone who is not conducting terrorist attacks against peaceful citizens.

There is one more fearsome aspect of this problem. All of these calls to “Beat the blacks” and so on are triggering a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and terror extending far beyond the borders of Chechnya. We started this war to keep Chechnya Russian; what we are achieving is to turn Russia into Chechnya.



















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