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Moscow’s Learning Difficulties

In 2004, the Chechen rebels’ ability to strike at civilian and military targets was growing, and Moscow seemed unable to respond or to understand why. by Nabi Abdullaev and Simon Saradzhyan 29 March 2010

With the news from Moscow this morning that two female suicide bombers had set off explosions in the city’s crowded subway systems, killing dozens of people, official speculation immediately turned on insurgent groups from the country’s north Caucasus region, although no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks. A brutal, Kremlin-backed regime in Grozny has ended large-scale fighting in Chechnya, and Moscow announced an official end to hostilities there last April. But political violence is on the rise in neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan, and if today’s attackers turn out to have links with north Caucasus insurgent groups, the terrorists apparently intend to take the fight to the doorstep of Russia’s security services.

In late 2004, two TOL contributors examined the response to the notorious attack on a school in Beslan and concluded that Russia’s security officials had learned little from the siege of a Moscow theater two years earlier. They cited incompetence, disorganization, and corruption as factors that hampered the emergency operation and abetted the terrorists’ efforts. This article originally appeared on 11 November 2004.


MOSCOW | A little over two years ago, a group of 42 Chechen rebels stormed a crowded theater in downtown Moscow and seized about 800 hostages. After two and a half days of the standoff, Russian special services overran the theater, killing all the terrorists.

But there were also casualties among the hostages, 130 of them. More than 100 reportedly died for lack of proper and urgent treatment to those left unconscious by a sleeping gas that the security services had fed into the building’s ventilation system.

To many, this would seem like a failure, but no one has been punished for the Dubrovka debacle. Instead, the Kremlin regarded the outcome of the hostage drama as a strategic success, even rewarding some members of the assault unit. The idea of continuing talks with perceived moderates in the Chechen resistance was quashed, while the Russian media were forced to adopt significant limitations on their coverage of terrorism and the war in Chechnya, the most sensitive issues for the government.

But the horrors of Beslan have tragically demonstrated the fallacy of the authorities’ view of Dubrovka—and the negligence that its misjudgment cultivated.


The authorities chose to portray Dubrovka as a victory in an apparent attempt to convince the public that the "success" of the special services had taught the Chechen rebels a lesson. Over the next two years they were so inert that it seemed they had lulled themselves into believing their own words.

Rather than explore the tactical and strategic flaws in their handling of hostage-taking crises that the Dubrovka tragedy highlighted, the special services and executive branch of power brushed aside criticism, tarring the critics by claiming they supported the terrorists and the country’s disintegration.

In one sense, the Federal Security Service’s elite Vympel and Alfa units and other commandos could claim some success: it is hard to overwhelm suicide bombers and seize a trip-wired building without any bombs going off.

But more than 100 hostages died because of poorly coordinated medical services. The same flaw was embarrassingly clear at Beslan. There, most of the injured were rescued by volunteers who rushed them to hospitals in private cars.

But more generally, the Beslan tragedy highlighted a failure to address what Dubrovka had already made plain: the lack of a single chain of command and a lack of coordination in crises.

Between Dubrovka and Beslan, little was done to redress those problems. The special services' commando units looked at their experience at Dubrovka in an attempt to learn from it, but it became apparent in Beslan that federal and regional senior officials had done nothing of the kind.

The result: confusion and desperate on-the-spot attempts to make up for the neglect. For instance, when a unit of Interior Ministry commandos tried to enter the school, they were temporarily stalled by a lack of sappers, according to accounts by participants. The same sources say that the elite troops from the Federal Security Service, the modern KGB, were training with crews of armored personnel carriers outside Beslan when explosions went off inside the school, triggering the storming of the school.

So in just one of many examples of the crisis-handlers’ incompetence and lack of readiness, the only force that could have quickly eliminated the terrorists--and therefore minimized casualties among the hostages—was not in place and not deployed in time.


Since Beslan, there has been an attempt to improve crisis management. The Kremlin has decided to re-establish a Soviet-era practice of training regional leaders in how to take command in emergency situations.

But this will not do anything about the Achilles heel revealed by Dubrovka and Beslan--corruption and negligence in law enforcement agencies and other government bodies. This problem needs to be addressed if the authorities are to prevent more suicide bombings rather than just deal with their consequences.

It was a corrupt officer who gave some of the Dubrovka hostage-takers Moscow registration papers in exchange for bribes.

In a similar display of negligence and lack of professionalism, law-enforcers had at various times detained six of the terrorists who participated in the Beslan raid for illegal possession of arms. (They were also suspected of belonging to illegal paramilitary groups.) But all were released, according to the findings of the parliamentary commission set up to investigate the Beslan drama. One of them, Khanpashi Kulaev, held an officer’s rank in the group led by Shamil Basaev, who has claimed responsibility for the Beslan and Dubrovka sieges. Kulaev had been detained several times in Chechnya but each time was quickly released.

How the terrorists crossed the border also highlights flaws in the work of local law-enforcers--and the possibility that corruption may again have been a factor. They crossed into North Ossetia from Ingushetia along a muddy and rarely used road with no checkpoints. But there were many police and troops on a busy nearby highway. Security concerns probably fail to explain why the troops clustered around a major road and neglected a minor road; a more probable explanation is that there was more chance of collecting bribes.


But the biggest failure, perhaps, was a strategic misreading of the Dubrovka attack. If authorities had read it correctly, it would have been clearer to them, both at the regional and federal level, that another hostage-taking was inevitable and that they would have to take measures to prevent or minimize the effects of an attack.

For Basaev, Dubrovka was not a failure but a successful opening to a new chapter in his war strategy--a switch to suicide bombings. Basaev made his intentions very clear. He used the Dubrovka crisis to advertise his claim in numerous statements on rebel websites that he had created a regiment of martyr warriors, including dozens of women.

Putin’s response to Dubrovka reinforced this new dynamic. His unwillingness to talk with the rebels either about a long-term political solution in Chechnya or about the release of hundreds of hostages ended any lingering rebel hopes of winning independence or greater autonomy.

And the restrictions on the media and the hardening of Russian attitudes appear to have convinced some Chechen leaders that only attacks of such a scale and kind, with the possibility of massive casualties, can attract much attention. The tragedy in Beslan, which glued the attention of a global audience to the terrible plight of hundreds of schoolchildren and their parents and, at the same time, to the Chechen separatist cause, was therefore a logical development in an increasingly terrorist-style war, rather than an aberration.

In other words, by depriving the rebels of the oxygen of publicity, the Russian authorities have driven them to more extreme attacks. And by doing little or nothing to uproot corruption and improve emergency systems, they have made those attacks possible.


But even if the Russian authorities became more effective, they would not necessarily dissuade the Chechens from terrorism, as there have been some important changes in the rationale for continuing the struggle. For some commanders, their hopes for an independent Chechnya dashed, it is greed that now motivates. Spectacular attacks have been part of a publicity campaign that is being rewarded by what appears to be stronger support from donors worldwide. (There is inadequate information on funding for the rebels, but indirect evidence that they have more money comes from the growing sophistication and scale of military and terrorist operations. Carrying out such attacks is costly in logistical terms and requires spending more on bribing officials.)

In other words, some of the rebels are changing their constituency from local nationalists to the global Muslim community. In the meantime, religious motives have become stronger among the foot-soldiers in the terrorist campaign, allowing them to dehumanize the enemy and to loosen their attachment to a political constituency—the Chechens themselves--whose interests they are actually hurting through their excessive violence.

Those religious motives are also loosening their attachment to their own lives--and that, plus desperation, has meant a dramatic increase in the use of suicide attacks.

This has distinct benefits for the commanders, since suicide bombings are a low-cost but extremely effective means of gaining publicity. The publicity they generate also buys time, allowing them to hone their plans for massive operations.

The publicity-driven nature of this strategic thinking is also evident in more traditional operations conducted by other elements in the rebel camp. In June, hundreds of rebel fighters simultaneously attacked a dozen police and security installations, killing 91 people, including 60 police officers. It was a formidable demonstration that the operational quality of the insurgency in the Northern Caucasus has improved.

It also again showed the government’s failure to provide regional officials with contingency plans and resources to call on in emergencies. That will not have been lost on the mastermind of the attack in Beslan.

Whether through terrorist attacks on civilians or assaults on military positions, the Chechens are throwing a gauntlet down at the feet of the Russian security forces. They are showing they are prepared to bide their time, fine-tune their operations, plan high-profile attacks, and then to strike anywhere. In the process, the rebels have highlighted the weak points and inefficiency of the Russian security services.

So far, Moscow has failed to respond adequately. It has learned how to derive political gain from terrorist crises, but it has failed to address effectively how to minimize the frequency, scale, and impact of terrorist attacks. At best, the authorities’ response—to give the security services more power after each major attack and to pump more money into their budgets--is futile. Instead, Russia’s success in eliminating threats to its security will depend on the Kremlin’s willingness and ability to reform its security forces.

That is needed urgently. The change in the strategy and motivations of rebels like Basaev means that terrorism is here to stay. At the same time it seems that, both in military and terrorist operations, the capabilities of the rebels continue to grow.

Simon Saradzhyan and Nabi Abdullaev, a longtime contributor to TOL, are co-founders of the Center for Eurasian Security Studies in Moscow.
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