BACKGROUND: The Chechen terrorist seizure of a Moscow theater on October 23-24 clearly represented their despair over the course of the war. But more importantly, it was strategically misconceived for many reasons. First, it seemingly confirmed the constant Russian charges that the war is just another operation in the global campaign against international terrorism. Second, although the terrorists sought to carry out a spectacular operation, they also gave Moscow no choice but to respond forcefully. Third, this operation once again suggested that "Islamic terrorism" had indeed hijacked the Chechens' long-standing campaign for independence and self-rule. Thus it diverted attention away from the Russian misrule that lies at the root of the two Chechen wars since 1994. In that respect it played into Russian hands, at least in the short term. Finally, this operation also raises the question of whether or not there is someone with whom Moscow could negotiate authoritatively even if it wanted to do so. President Aslan Maskhadov's authority over various Chechen guerrillas, though often claimed, could not have benefited even from a successful Chechen operation let alone a failure. Maskhadov is either a rather weak figure who cannot deliver a solution or exercise genuine command; or, if he truly supported this operation, then he validated Moscow's refusal to negotiate with him because he too supports terrorism. Thus the authors of this operation have much to answer for because they have decisively set back the cause of Chechen independence while seemingly making Moscow's case for the war. None of these considerations, however, exonerates Moscow. As this author and many others have long asserted, this war's roots lie in Russian misrule and readiness to countenance a war against Chechnya for domestic political reasons. Moreover, Russian conduct in this war has reached a level of unparalleled brutality in contemporary warfare of our time, outpacing by far Serb atrocities in Kosovo. Despite the liberation of this theater and the substantial political or propaganda victory that Russia will now harvest, the fact remains that the Russian army cannot and will not bring this war to any sort of victorious conclusion. There is no concept of victory other than the elimination of Chechnya as a socio-political entity, and the Russian army is almost as much a mob as it is a professional armed force. This war and the Russian Army have become a byword for brutality, corruption together with selected Chechen warlords who collaborate in those activities, and a level of mistreatment of the population and soldiery that no professional Army would long tolerate. Thus this army cannot achieve a victory and the area, as well as Russia, are obliged to live with continuing war and its likely spread through further terrorist operations into Russia proper. Putin's threats to use even weapons of mass destruction anywhere on the globe against further terrorist threats using such weapons can only alarm, not impress observers.
IMPLICATIONS: These threats oblige us to ponder several disturbing strategic consequences of this operation for the future. First, all of Russia and especially Moscow can now be targeted by these or other terrorist groups. Second, the malfeasance of the Russian intelligence forces, who allowed these people to get into Moscow, obtain weapons and explosives, and rehearse their operation must become the subject of a tough-minded after-action report lest there be a repeat of this crisis. Given the FSB's well-known corruption and incompetence, it is of utmost importance to see how the aftermath of this operation affects it. Second, a review of the options available to Russia's special forces must be undertaken since evidently the usual rule of saving lives as the first priority is not high upon their or the governments priorities. Third, and perhaps most consequential is the fact that chemical weapons or something resembling them were used here. Reports suggest the gas used was a derivative of opium known as Fentanyl, likely compounded with other, unknown substances. Whatever it is, used in those doses (reportedly five times as much as was necessary) it clearly is lethal to large numbers of people and not just an incapacitating drug. Second, by using this weapon, Russia showed that it retains large stocks of usable chemical weapons despite repeated pledges to clean them up. Moscow alternates between promises to do so and appeals for more Western subsidies to do so. This operation suggests that chemical weapons research continues and that their use is contemplated in military operations. Therefore a dangerous threshold has been crossed. Future terrorists who have already sought to use chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons will consider themselves justified by Russia's action in using them. This consideration heightens the risk we face in future terrorist operations anywhere in the world.
CONCLUSIONS: Russia has unwittingly opened the door to threat scenarios of higher and greater risk. By crossing the threshold of non-use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction and showing that it still regards their use as a justified part of projected military operations, it could lead others to emulate it. As long as a justification for their use is plausible, this operation also suggests that they can be used with impunity. Moscow has also inadvertently raised questions about its reliability with regard to conventions banning the use and development of chemical weapons and other arms control and proliferation accords. Its actions eliminated the urgent threat of mass casualties but will probably harden its determination and the Chechens' equivalent but opposing will to continue fighting. Thus no end is in sight to the Chechen war. The counter-terrorist operation was necessary as no government would have tolerated or accepted it, but the manner of its execution can only raise disturbing questions and trigger no little anxiety for the future.
AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013.
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.