IMPLICATIONS: Despite the fact that the increased numbers of female suicide bombers would seem to be a natural reaction to the events in Dubrovka rather than any kind of premediated war strategy among the Chechens, the phenomenon indicates a fundamental shift in the nature of the war in Chechnya. The earlier cases of Chechen terrorism and hostage-taking were either aimed at military targets or, if not, were never planned to result in large numbers of killed civilians. Basaev’s 1995 hostage-taking in Budennovsk was in practice aimed at a military target: a garrison town hospital in which Russian military personnel was recuperating. Besides, interviews with Chechens who participated in the raid indicate that the hospital was only a secondary target, chosen when the primary target could not be reached. Even the suicide bombings committed by foreign extremists in Chechnya were aimed at military targets, typically barracks or headquarters of the Russian Interior Ministry Forces in Chechnya. The Chechen suicide bombers are unlikely to change the outcome of the war in Chechnya militarily. Chechnya remains unstable, and any Russian reaction to the suicide bombings in the form of increased repression - in Chechnya or directed at Chechens living in Russian cities such as Moscow - will no doubt only encourage yet more Chechens to engage in terrorism. Yet, the Russian security organs have stepped up surveillance of Chechens present in the Russian cities - and could hardly do otherwise when suddenly faced with a real threat of terrorism. However, the new threat of terrorism brings implications for the political and social development of Russia. Since 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin has gradually increased the powers of the state, motivating this with the need to protect Russian society from Chechen terrorism. Yet the Russian claims of Chechen involvement in the 1999 apartment building explosions in Moscow and elsewhere have never been substantially proven, and except in the Northern Caucasus, the threat from terrorism was always minimal. The security organs never, or only seldom, had to face a genuine need to use their new powers to fight real, not imagined terrorists. Beginning with the Dubrovka hostage-taking, this situation has changed. President Putin and the Russian security organs will henceforth have to deliver the security that the increased state powers were meant to provide.
CONCLUSIONS: Russia from now on will have to live with sudden acts of terrorism aimed at civilians in Moscow as well as other major cities. Whether this will alter the public image of President Putin remains to be seen. He has hitherto enjoyed the image of a tough commander-in-chief of a small victorious war in the Caucasus. However, if Putin cannot deliver the security that he has promised, even he - and certainly the security organs - may eventually lose the support of the public. On the Chechen side, it remains unclear to what extent the Chechen leadership under President Aslan Maskhadov is able to prevent, or even influence, the shift in tactics. Maskhadov immediately condemned the Dubrovka hostage-taking. He has also condemned other attacks aimed at civilians. Yet, the Chechen leaders no doubt realize that the foreign support lost since 2001 will hardly be regained as long as some Chechens engage in suicide bombings. On the other hand, a situation that pushes men and women so far over the edge that they choose to become suicide bombers is not one that can be solved by logic and negotiations alone. The war in Chechnya is unlikely to be over soon.
AUTHOR BIO: Michael Fredholm is a defense analyst working for the Swedish government. He has written extensively on the history, defense, and security policies of Eurasia. The views presented in this article are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent those of the Swedish government.