From the signing of a nuclear treaty to the train bombings in Moscow, from the Kyrgyzstan coup to today’s tragic Polish air disaster in Smolensk, Russia has been mourned, blamed, praised and scrutinized in the last week by outside observers. Whether playing an implicit, explicit, or a mere bystander role, the Kremlin has been an actor in almost every major international event so far this month. What does it mean and what are the implications?
First the train bombing in Moscow. As the US continues its anti-terrorist and counterinsurgency campaigns, Russian leaders will have to decide how to tailor its response to the unique groups of Islamist terrorists and North Caucuses separatists in Chechnya, Dagestan, and surrounding areas. Based on their rhetoric, Russia’s method will be similar to the techniques used throughout the 1990s that had seemed to eradicate much of the threat, except maybe even harsher. President Medvedev said the measures taken must be “tougher, more brutal” in rooting out terrorists, and that “twisting off the heads of the most odious thugs” has not been enough. This contrasts with his statements from a year ago which seemed to prefer a socio-economic path of improving conditions in the North Caucuses in order to eradicate support for the rebels. His recent response could be a knee-jerk reaction to the bombings or the results of Putin making sure everyone is in line with his preferred approach.
Foreign Minister Lavrov has opened another front, suggesting that those behind the suicide attacks may have been supported by groups from abroad, including groups in the Afghan-Pakistan border. Yet if Russia wants to blend Chechnya’s rebels with the US’s adversaries in South Asia, why the hostile words over the US military base in Kyrgyzstan? The battle has been raging over the past decade even though it’s in Russia’s interest to see the Taliban defeated so that they can’t support Chechen rebels. Paul Reynolds of the BBC writes that Moscow has to balance their concern of a resurgent Taliban with their distaste of the US having an air base in a former Soviet Republic. But with the recent signing of a new nuclear treaty and US-Russian relations seemingly on the uptick, the balance would seem to be in favor of supporting US operations against the Taliban.
Yet it could all go back to how Russia plans on responding to the terrorist attacks. Moscow may be tying Chechen groups with al-Qaeda and the Taliban merely to gain moral international support in order to carry out harsh tactics in the Caucuses. They may see Af-Pak groups as ideological leaders but not serious contributors to the Chechen cause. Tying them together rhetorically but separating them tactically would be a way to achieve gains both in their fight against terrorism and their larger goal of impeding US interests, all while appearing strong domestically. No surprise, but the events of the last few weeks have shown how important a role Russia is and will continue to play in international affairs.