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Russia: Between Terrorism and Foreign Policy

INSS Insight No. 174

Recent events in Russia - Islamic terrorist attacks on the one hand and the blunt message to Hamas demanding an end to the rocket fire on the other - are indicative of a Russian dilemma, reflected in its ambivalent policy on international terrorism.

The latest terrorist attack, apparently carried out by Muslim organizations in the northern Caucasus with suicide bombers targeting establishment institutions and transportation, exacted a high human toll, spread public panic, and caused a great deal of consternation for the Russian authorities.

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To date, the Russian establishment has been unsuccessful in containing the phenomenon and for now is activating the rhetorical channel by transmitting harsh messages to terrorist organizations. However, in the midst of these events, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in his dialogue with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, demanded that Hamas cease firing rockets at Israel. Despite the near-concurrence of these events, it is as yet impossible to point to a causal link. What does stand out in this case is the difference in the Russian attitude to terrorism at home, compared to their attitude to radical Islamic elements abroad.

Terrorism against Russia on the part of Muslim rebels in the northern Caucasus that started after the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a struggle for national independence, turned over the years and two bloody wars (1994-96, 1999-2007) into a fundamentalist Muslim struggle for the establishment of a sharia-based Islamic state in the entire northern Caucasus region. The struggle was begun by the Chechen rebels, and was apparently supported economically, morally, and militarily - including with active participation in the fighting against the Russians - by radical Islamic elements in the Middle East. The struggle included extensive guerilla warfare and terrorist attacks, first in Chechnya and later in other Muslim provinces in the northern Caucasus, and finally in the heart of Russia itself. Ironically, it was only recently that the Russians announced significant achievements in the war against the rebels, including the elimination of guerilla units, targeted assassinations of key activists, and institution of law and order in the province led by the pro-Russian president Ramzan Kadyrov. Now criticism is mounting in Russia protesting the defrauding of the public by the establishment on this point.

The Islamic threat against Russia has become a challenge that is difficult to ignore. Within the Russian Federation there is a significant Muslim population of over 20 million (some 15 percent of the nation, characterized by a negative demographic balance) centered in two regions: in 7 different provinces in the northern Caucasus, and in 2 large provinces (Bashkortostan and Tatarstan) in the Volga and Ural region. Beyond this, many Muslims from these provinces and especially from other Muslim states of the former USSR live in Russian cities as foreign workers. The Muslim population of the northern Caucasus, which is more militant, is responsible for most of the terrorist attacks, but Russia is rightfully worried about the spread of radical Islam throughout the country. Despite longstanding efforts to contain it, the Islamic threat continues to challenge Russia; this is underscored by the fact that the Russian population is not quite prepared to withstand a war of terrorism. It seems that the Russian establishment has yet to find the right response, and like many other countries, lacks simple and easy solutions for terrorism.

In light of these challenges, the question arises regarding Russia's policy on international terrorism. Here, the picture is vastly different. Not only does Russia not cooperate with the West in its struggle against the threat of radical Islam; it actually implements an ambivalent policy that does not necessarily address its own needs in the face of this clear and present danger. On the one hand, Russian security forces are prosecuting a tough war in the terrorist centers of the northern Caucasus, but on the other hand Russia does not over-emphasize the Islamic nature of these centers. Rather, Russia chooses to present those involved as rebels against the state and as criminals handled by internal security procedures. When it comes to international terrorism, including the branches operating directly against Russia (for their part, radical Islamists treat Russia, for all intents and purposes, as one of their jihadist targets), Russian attitudes are less politically aligned. The background for this approach lies in Russia's clear political interest to maintain its positive status with regard to Muslim nations and organizations, especially anti-Western ones, and thus promote Russia's foreign policy goals. This approach is in practice translated into a clear distinction between domestic terrorism, presented as an internal Russian matter, and in no way is any connection made between it and radical Islam and international terrorism operating with its blessing. Moreover, Russia has understandings with certain elements whereby the latter avoid subversive Islamic activity within Russia's borders in exchange for Russia's political support, e.g., Iran.

With regard to Russia's demand of Hamas to refrain from shooting rockets at Israel, unheard of in the past at least on the public level: Is this evidence of a change in Russian policy? Does it stem from a change in Russia's attitude to Islamic terrorism in general? Apparently no. Although Hamas had a hand in establishing radical Islamic activity in the northern Caucasus in the past, this is not what disturbs Russia now. In fact, the recent message to Hamas is part of a dialogue Russia is conducting with the organizaiton, alongside its dialogue with the Palestinian Authority and most of the players on the Middle Eastern arena. This past February, Mashal himself, like Abu Mazen, the Jordanian king, the Lebanese president, and the Israeli prime minister all visited Moscow. The Russians held discussions with these individuals on issues including aspects of renewing the peace process under Russian mediation. Later, on March 19, the Quartet met in Moscow, where unusual accord on conditions for renewing the peace process emerged, an accord at odds with Israel's interests. Furthermore, an agreement was reached then that a conference on the Middle East would be held there within the coming months. In this scenario, Russia, apparently with the agreement of the United States, is promised a leading role.

It may be that the recent tensions between Hamas and Israel because of the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip are seen by Russia as an effort directed at undermining the restarting of the peace process. This is viewed by Russia as damaging its essential interests; the pressure exerted on Mashal is meant to curb this negative development. By doing so, Russia is acting not only to prevent a deterioration of the situation but also to demonstrate its leading role on the international scene. Indeed, today only the Russians have the actual capability of conducting a dialogue with all parties in the region, especially when it comes to an organization such as Hamas. Therefore, even if one cannot rule out the possibility of future changes in Russia's policy on the struggle against radical Islam and international terrorism, what is now evinced is the implementation of its previous policy.

Russia might consider future changes its policy, also given the fact that there is mounting criticism in Russia of the current state of affairs (although there are those who feel that expanding the conflict would be politically useful for the Russian establishment). Should this occur, it would primarily touch on Russian cooperation with the West regarding the larger struggle against radical Islam, which would constitute quite an important development.

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