Why Russia can't stop terrorists

Thursday, January 27, 2011; 8:04 PM

THE HORRIFIC suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport on Monday underlined a couple of sad conclusions about Russia's battle against terrorism. One is that the country's security services, unlike their counterparts in Europe and North America, have failed to develop the means to uncover terrorist networks, prevent attacks or protect public spaces such as airports and subway systems. No country's police can guarantee security. But in Russia over the past decade, as Vladimir Putin has cited the threat of terrorism in consolidating a domestic police state, Moscow alone has suffered eight major attacks, along with the destruction of two airplanes that took off from Domodedovo. Casualties have been heavy: At least 35 died and more than 200 were injured in the latest strike.

Second, Mr. Putin's autocratic form of rule and imperialist policy toward non-Russian nations has made it impossible for him to resolve - or even seriously address - the underlying problem that fuels most of the attacks. That is the restiveness of the mostly Muslim republics of the North Caucasus, including Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, which for the past two decades have been seeking more autonomy from Moscow. Russia's brutal response, including Mr. Putin's scorched-earth campaign in Chechnya, fueled the rise of Muslim extremist groups that have been growing steadily stronger despite nonstop counterterrorism operations. According to official Russian reports, the number of terrorist attacks in the Caucasus doubled in 2010 - though the bloodshed gets little attention when it occurs outside Moscow or other Russian cities.

Mr. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev sometimes seem to recognize that sweeps by security forces will never stop the terrorists. Mr. Medvedev has blamed the "economic backwardness" of the Caucasus, and Mr. Putin has promoted a development plan under which the central government will invest $13 billion in the region over the next decade. That could do some good if the programs don't fall victim to Russia's endemic corruption. But the Kremlin leaders won't seriously address the issue of self-rule for the republics. Nor are they willing to take on the federal secret police and other security services, which are more skilled at protection rackets and the persecution of political dissidents than in detecting terrorist plots. It was telling that in the aftermath of the bombing, Mr. Medvedev blamed the management of the privately operated airport rather than federal officials responsible for counterterrorism.

What's particularly worrying about the regime's failures is that Russia is due to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, on the edge of the Caucasus. The International Olympic Committee's unwise decision to accept Russia's bid means that athletes and governments around the world have to depend on the Putin-Medvedev regime to prevent terrorist disruption of the Games. Monday's attack was a reminder of how risky a bet that is.

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