Irony without equal exists in the world news section of the London Daily Telegraph today. The lead article is, of course, the suicide bombing at the main Moscow airport. But, sharing the page is a story from the other day which relates of the plans announced by Vladimir Putin and Dimitri Medvedev for a series of five star ski resorts to be built on the hillsides of the North Caucasus.
The irony resides in the fact that the bombing comes courtesy of the the jihadists of the North Caucasus--the insurgency which has spread from Chechnya to the other segments of the North Caucasus in large measure because the Russian efforts at counterinsurgency have been sufficiently robust to inflame but not to suppress. The Kremlin may have taken false comfort in the slow motion pace of insurgent activities in the North Caucasus while failing to recall that the the jihadists of the North Caucasus have preferred mediagenic attacks far from home, usually in Moscow.
The suicide bombing meets the test of being a politically shocking media spectacular. It will grab the full and undivided attention of both Putin and Medvedev. For Putin in particular the bombing has a very real urgency given that he most probably will seek to return to the presidential post in elections next year.
Putin, it should be remembered, won his political bones in 1999 with his successful ending of the Chenchen war. Each and every outrage since then has reminded the Russian people and particularly the elites that the insurgency continues. Each and every outrage is a challenge to Putin's reputation and a threat to his future.
The attack on the international arrivals area of Domodedovo airport has thrown down the gauntlet at a time and in a place which will no doubt convince many in the political elite that Putin has lost his magic, that only a well polished surface remains of a man once thought to be tough and innovative enough to provide a secure and prosperous future for the rebuilding Russia. Medvedev may be the man issuing enhanced security orders today, but no one in the Russian "know" believes that anyone other than Putin is actually responsible for the situation in the North Caucasus.
If Putin is really serious about returning to the president's office--or even remaining as prime minister--he will have to take a much more hands-on approach to the challenge represented by the advocates of violent political Islam in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. Gone are the easy going days of appointing a local strongman as capo, or delegating some former KGB general to "clarify the situation and put it to order." Putin may have to go personally to direct a massive operation aimed not so much at counterinsurgency as at (using the old Russian/Soviet practice) creating a desert and calling it peace.
Next year, 2012, is election time in Russia, and then two years later it is the time of the Winter Olympic Games scheduled to be hosted by Russia in a venue uncomfortably proximate to the heartland of violent political Islam. This means that for the Kremlin, time is of the essence as attorneys like to put it. Putin's less than competent, not to say, half-baked, notions of counterinsurgency have frittered away the past several years without either suppressing the leadership or demobilizing support within the population for the goals, if not the total agenda, of the pro-violent political Islam cadre.
From the shortness of time and the probable ill effects upon the elites' perception of Putin's competence, it is not risky to infer that Vladimir of the Bare Chest has few options other than a massive military campaign aimed at the rapid destruction of the jihadists capacity to stage attacks on any but the smallest of small scales. Approaches of greater finesse simply take too much time.
Of course, the use of large military formations, even battalion sized units of special duty troops, carries with it some very real risks. One risk, of course, is failure. The local terrain both physical and human favors the insurgents. The Russian army, even its special duty units, have not demonstrated a high degree of capability so far either in the North Caucasus or Tajikistan. During the earlier Chechen wars, the Russian military showed the same deficiencies as it had in Afghanistan, including a willingness to kill far more people than genuinely needed to be killed.
Another, larger risk, is that military operations carry with them the strong potential of a negative portrayal in the media of the world. Media and human rights organizations which feed the media have exhibited both a strong aversion to the reality that people are killed and things broken during wars, including counterinsurgcies. The same crew have demonstrated repeatedly that they have a very tender concern for the fate not only of non-combatants caught in the theater of operations but also insurgents. Time after time, both media and human rights groups have declared in effect that insurgents are all pure and good but the status quo forces are all evil and malignant.
Russia and Putin need a bad international press like they need another insurgency. The costs which may be imposed by the US, the EU, and other "concerned" parties may be high. If that proves to be the case there is a strong probability that the Russian leadership will respond by invoking some of the bad behavior internationally which was once the patented product of the Soviet Union. This sort of reaction would complicate the diplomatic life of the US and others.
Even with these risks, doing nothing, or nothing more than more of the same, constitutes a greater risk for Mr Putin. Both he and Mr Medvedev have termed the ongoing insurgency in the North Caucasus the single greatest security threat facing Russia. The blast at the airport may convince both, or at least Vladimir (the Strong Horse) Putin that the time has come to treat the insurgents appropriately.
If that proves to be the case, it will take more than Allah's will to save the insurgents.