Why Putin Can't Claim Victory in His War on Terror

  • Share
  • Read Later

Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev in a video image from 2005.

The official announcement was televised by all Russian stations Monday afternoon, and the endlessly repeated footage played oddly like a B-grade movie scene. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB (Russia's counterintelligence agency and heir to the KGB), tersely reported to President Vladimir Putin that Chechen warlord and Russia's most wanted terrorist Shamil Basayev had been taken out as a result of "a special operation, mounted both at home and abroad," just as he was poised to strike yet another painful, humilitating blow on the eve of the Putin-hosted G-8 summit. Putin nodded somber approval, ordered the agents involved rewarded — and then warned that the war on terrorism was not over yet.

It was a carefully stage-managed event, and the timing couldn't have been more advantageous for Putin, who will be happy to have the news deflect talk from Russia's strained democracy, or using energy supplies as diplomatic cudgels, or other unpleasant issues that he would rather not discuss when he hosts the world leaders. After all, producing a dead Basayev on the verge of the G-8 summit is nearly as impressive as producing a dead Osama Bin Laden would have been on, say, the Fourth of July for U.S. President George Bush.

Russian media reports were saying that Basayev was identified by his "leg prosthesis and his beard." The timing of his death is so ideal and the circumstances so cinematic that conspiracy theories are bound to flourish. According to official information, Basayev's Zhiguli sedan was part of a three-vehicle convoy on its way to commit that very sinister act of terror Patrushev invoked. Late Sunday night, the convoy stopped at the outskirtS of the village of Ekazhevo in Ingushetia, a mountainous republic not far from Chechnya, Basayev got out of his sedan, walked up to a huge KAMAZ truck in his convoy that carried a load of explosives — and at that very minute the truck exploded. No wonder some Russians already suspect that he could have been killed earlier and the revelation postponed until now for maximum impact — or that at the very least, that he may have died in an accident rather than a Russian operation.

Still for once, even Putin's staunchest critics will agree that the autocratic Russian ruler was not at fault in taking out the Chechen warlord. Shamil Basayev, Putin's nemesis, has been a cruel and bloodthirsty terrorist, responsible for mass murders, including the deadly hostage taking at a Moscow theater in October 2002 and, most notably, the horrible Beslan school atrocity in September 2004, in which almost 400, more than half of them children, died. However, unlike in B movies, the demise of a villain like Basayev doesn't mean Putin's problems will suddenly vanish.

In that respect, the fact that Basayev was said to be killed in Ingushetia rather than in Chechnya is revealing. The rebellion has long spread from Chechnya not only to neighboring Ingushetia, but to all the seven republics of the Russian North Caucusus. A senior Russian officer told TIME a couple of years ago yet that the real war was now ranging elsewhere in the Caucasus rather than in Chechnya. "They have long regrouped and moved their strike bases mostly to Ingushetia," said the officer, "And they now use Chechnya mostly as a safe haven to recoup after combat operations. But our military machine is too unwieldy to turn around that quick."

Indeed, most major attacks over last couple of years came in Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Dagestan. Not that Chechnya is all that immune either: just over the last two weeks there were two major rebel attacks on Russian convoys, leaving over half-dozen dead.

Particularly troubling is the fact that increasing numbers of more militant young people are joining the rebel ranks, pushed there by Moscow's harsh politics, corrupt local authorities, mass unemployment and growing illiteracy.

As long as Moscow sees Islamic extremists under every bush, local police will produce as many as Moscow likes. A distinguished Moscow Oriental scholar was shocked to witness local cops rounding up more than 200 people celebrating a wedding in a Balkar village — they were suspected of extremism, because they did not use alcohol or smoke tobacco. The episode took place shortly before a rebel band, consisting mostly of youngsters, attacked Nalchik, the Kabardino-Balkaria capital, and kept it for hours.

As they gather together later this week, Putin and President Bush can compare notes on their respective nemeses. Not unlike the way Osama bin Laden started as a CIA creature, Basayev started as a creature of Russian secret services. Back in 1993, Moscow sided with Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia — which wanted out of Georgia very much for the same reasons Chechnya wants out of Russia. Except, with support of the Russian army and the Chechen fighters commanded by Basayev, who even then was known for his cruelty to civilians and prisoners, Abkhazia succeeded at breaking away.

Much like Bin Laden, Basayev used his training against his onetime backers. And just as the U.S. is learning the hard way about Bin Laden, the new breed of terrorists carrying on Basayev's fight could present an even tougher fight.