Two days after the Beslan tragedy ended in a fiery blood bath, a group of Western experts and journalists, including this author, met with Vladimir Putin for tea in his state residence in Novo-Ogarevo. It was a grim affair.
The historic significance of the location, where Mikhail Gorbachev and the leaders of nine Soviet republics made a last ditch attempt to save the USSR was obvious to most people present.
Before entering the room, the delegation watched the news on a huge plasma screen in the billiard room. Images of children buried in small coffins and harrowing scenes of screaming mothers were broadcast unfiltered, triggering difficult questions. What went wrong?
First, Russian intelligence networks in the North Caucasus failed to identify preparations for the attack or provide timely intelligence to intercept hostage takers before they entered the school.
The failure of the rescue operation was obvious for all to see. The top military commander said that "there was no planning to rescue hostages" and that the main spetsnaz [special forces] force was training 30 kilometers away 48 hours after the hostage taking took place. Even if negotiations were underway, the rescue force had to be on location and ready to attack at any moment, especially at night.
The hostage takers dictated the operational tempo: they were able to impose the rescue timing by setting off the explosives and by putting up a resistance stiff enough to last 10 hours: from 1PM to 11PM, when most of the militants were killed.
As it was known that there were explosives in the building, the only chance to save the children if negotiations failed was to overwhelm the terrorists in a massive, targeted attack that would have eliminated most of the perpetrators of this crisis in the first five to 10 minutes. Such an operation would have made use of the advantages inherent to an attack force equipped with night vision goggles, stun grenades or knock-out gas.
Nothing of the kind happened.
Appallingly, hundreds of armed locals were not removed from the scene. They interfered with the rescue attempt, such as it was, and possibly hurt both hostages and rescuers with their gunfire. No civilian-free zone was established around the school house, allowing the terrorists to pick off civilians outside the building.
Nor was an effective secure perimeter enforced around the school. Escaping terrorists broke out of the building and engaged in sporadic fire fights until 4AM the next morning. The Russian anti-terrorist forces at the scene did not wear modern ballistics and flame-resistant Kevlar helmets or wear bullet-proof vests. The famed Alfa and Vympel units lost 10 men in the operation the groups' highest casualty rate since Soviet days. Local Northern Ossetian OMON [special assignment militia], who helped out with the rescue attempt, were barely trained for the demanding mission.
This was the fifth massive hostage taking in the past 10 years, yet the Russian security forces demonstrated that they had learned little from similar debacles at Budyonnovsk, Pervomaiskoye, Kizlyar, or Moscow's Dubrovka Theater.
The question of why this latest operation had proven such a shambles overshadowed our September 6 meeting with Putin. Unfortunately, however, it was a question that went unanswered. Our host had other priorities on his mind, as we found out later.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, little attempt has been made to reform Russia's security services. These are still a post-communist, quasi-totalitarian political control mechanism aggravated by a pervasive corruption that was acknowledged by President Putin himself and other senior Russian officials with whom our group met. These units are not what Russia needs to confront modern local and global terrorism.
Jihadi terrorism may be a totally new and insufficiently understood challenge for Russia, different from the Cold War threats of "Western imperialism" or internal dissent. To address these threats, Russia's anti-terror approach needs to be rethought and revamped. New security structures need to be put in place which will prove capable of dealing with terrorism, and adapting to the security challenges of the 21st century.
But more than this is needed. Ethnically driven insurgencies are hardly new in the Caucasus or anywhere in the former Russian and Soviet empire. Political, economic, social, cultural, religious, and "hearts-and-minds" issues are in desperate need of attention throughout the Northern Caucasus. It remains to be seen whether Vladimir Yakovlev, the newly-elected head of the Ministry for Regional Development that oversees policy on nationalities, and Dmitry Kozak, a Putin can-do confidante and former cabinet secretary, who was recently appointed President's Plenipotentiary to the Southern Federal District, are up to this demanding task.
Instead of revamping, retraining and reorganizing Russia's anti-terrorist and security services, Putin has opted for a massive re-centralization of power. In doing so, he is taking the country back to a future reminiscent of the Soviet and czarist eras.
In this time of crisis, the Russian president has chosen to empower himself and his inner circle, not the people of Russia. Appointing Russia's 89 regional governors instead of submitting them to popular elections, and establishing a toothless "public chamber" to supervise the security services, instead of relying on civilian control by the legislative and executive branches of government, will not solve Russia's terrorism problems.
As former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned in separate, September 16 commentaries in Moscow News, nostalgia for the Soviet past may beget new authoritarianism. And authoritarianism is an unlikely antidote for terror.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
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