Russia's Long (and Brutal) War on Terror

Unlike Western nations confronting terrorism in their midst, the Kremlin has little time for legal niceties and human rights as it deals with an Islamist insurgency. But does brutality work?

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Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

Rasul Magomedov's daughter Maryam Sharipova was one of the March 29 bombers

On a Monday morning, March 29, suicide bombers attacked two metro stations in the heart of Moscow. The detonations, timed 40 minutes apart during rush hour for maximum damage, in some ways resembled the 2004 commuter-train attack in Madrid, the July 7 bombings in London a year later and numerous other public acts of terrorism around the globe. These similarities were not lost on world leaders, who were quick to express not just sympathy but also empathy. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said, "When Moscow is attacked, we are all attacked." In June, just days before the exposure of a U.S.-based Russian spy network, Barack Obama stressed unity with visiting Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, saying that "terrorists threaten both our people, be it in Times Square or in Moscow."

But if Russia faces a similar threat, that does not mean it has the same approach to the war on terrorism. In fact, in its long war against extremism, Russian leadership sometimes seems to act as the id of the global community--uninhibited, revenge-minded, saying things European and U.S. leaders dare not. The Kremlin and its generals have consistently prosecuted the war domestically in ways that seem both brazen and brutal by international standards. Yes, the West has done its own rough work behind closed doors--CIA renditions, the prison at Guantánamo--but in Russia, this work is almost celebrated. A newspaper with ties to the Kremlin lauded a new state prosecutor as a "tough man" who operates "on the edge of legality." Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made intimidation a large part of his political persona. But beyond the posturing lies a key question: Whose approach works better? If Western democracies are struggling to reconcile openness with vigilance, does the freer hand of the Kremlin, whose rule is closer to autocracy, give it an advantage in fighting its war on terrorism?

The Fortress City

Moscow was a fortress before it was ever a city. The Kremlin, sited on Borovitskaya Hill in 1156, was its first grand building, made originally from pine, then oak, limestone and finally red brick. As its walls grew thick, Moscow began the "gathering of Russia"--the conquering of principalities around it. It was the beginning of an expansion that, at the zenith of Soviet power, encompassed not just Russians but the world's largest tapestry of subject peoples: more than 100 ethnic groups speaking more than 200 languages, living in 11 time zones. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow divested itself of many of those entanglements, but some regions that agitated for more autonomy were located inside the century-old border of Russia and could not be carved out. Chief among these was the North Caucasus, a predominantly Muslim region that includes Chechnya, a tiny republic that fought two failed wars of independence. Since 2007, Chechnya has been ruled by the strong hand of Ramzan Kadyrov, a Kremlin-backed president who at first extinguished all open rebellion. But even Kadyrov's grip is slipping, and the fight against the Kremlin has flared in neighboring republics, which have served as a base for insurgent groups to mount successful attacks from southern Russia all the way to the fortress city on the Moscow river.

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