Russia's tempered response to Abbottabad

Moscow does not believe that bin Laden's removal will help scale back terrorist activity in the North Caucasus.

May 13, 2011 01:47 am | Updated May 15, 2011 09:24 am IST

It took Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev more than a week to offer his first public comment on the killing of Osama bin Laden. Even then it was little more than a passing remark at a government meeting he called on May 11 to discuss the need to strengthen security at Russian embassies against terrorist and other threats.

“The liquidation of terrorists, even as high-profile as the recently killed bin Laden, is directly related to the level of security in our country,” Mr. Medvedev said adding that Russian security services have killed a number of al-Qaeda emissaries in the insurgency-hit southern regions of Russia.

“That is why this interconnection between… actions taken by foreign states… and our domestic developments must also be in the focus of heightened attention.”

Mr. Medvedev's remarks hardly qualify for applause. Russia's powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has not commended the U.S. on its Abbottabad operation. Russia's official reaction was limited to two brief communiqués issued by the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry on May 2.

The Kremlin press service welcomed “serious success” of the U.S. in the fight against international terrorism and called for stepping up “joint coordinated battle” against this evil. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the U.S. blow to al-Qaeda had “universal significance” showing that “terrorism is doomed” and retribution strikes terrorists sooner or later.

The silence of the Kremlin leaders looks strange at first glance given the fact that bin Laden had caused Russia a lot of trouble. The world terrorist No.1 fought Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s and even took credit for destroying the Soviet Union before targeting the U.S.

“We conducted a war of attrition against Russia for 10 years until they went bankrupt,” bin Laden famously declared years after the Soviet Union collapsed. “We are continuing in the same policy — to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy.”

In the 1990s bin Laden did a lot to foment Islamist rebellion in Russia, recruiting volunteers to fight on the side of Chechen separatists and helping fund their movement. His right-hand man and likely successor, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, travelled to the North Caucasus in 1996 in search of a new home base for the al-Qaeda after it was expelled from Egypt and Saudi Arabia and before it moved its headquarters to Afghanistan. Several foreign insurgents belonging to the global terror group have been killed in the North Caucasus over the past 15 years. One of them was Ibn al-Khattab, an Arab veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviet army, who became a top warlord in Chechnya accused of masterminding a spate of apartment bombings that killed close to 300 Russians in 1999. Other prominent Arab militants killed in Chechnya include Abu Sayyaf, Abu Khavs, and Abu al Walid. A few days after bin Laden's death, Russian security forces killed another member of the so-called “Arab brigade” by the name of Abdullah Kurd.

However, in recent years Russian Islamists have become less dependent on al-Qaeda, either for expert guidance or financial support.

“Russian terrorists have links with al-Qaeda, but get funding and other assistance from other sources — some respectable Islamic charities based in Saudi Arabia and other countries,” said Sergei Rogov, Director of the Moscow-based Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies.

Moscow does not believe that the removal of the al-Qaeda leader will help scale back terrorist activity in Russia's North Caucasus.

In fact, experts fear bin Laden's death will lead to a spike in terrorist acts in the North Caucasus and worldwide.

“The liquidation of bin Laden will have no impact on terrorism in the world and still less in the North Caucasus; on the contrary it will open a Pandora's box of extremism,” said Ruslan Ghereyev of the North Caucasus Centre of Islamic Studies.

Arguably Moscow did not want to be too effusive about the killing of bin Laden because America's spectacular success in hunting down and eliminating the world's Number 1 terrorist, while protecting its own territory from any terrorist attacks for the past 10 years, made striking contrast with the failure of Russian security services to prevent a long series of bloody terrorist attacks in Moscow over the same period and root out terrorism in Russia's southern provinces.

Moscow was also careful not to alienate Muslims, both in Russia and in the world, as many among them did not share the West's exhilaration over the killing of bin Laden.

But the main reason for the Kremlin's reserved reaction is that the killing of bin Laden posed more questions than it answered. Moscow saw a wider U.S. game plan behind the liquidation of bin Laden and is deeply concerned about U.S.' further strategies in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

“I think that the death of the leader of al-Qaeda is the result of a deal between American and Pakistani intelligence,” academician Mr. Rogov pointed out.

The deal paves the way for a power sharing arrangement with the Taliban and should facilitate U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Moscow has good reason to fear that Washington will not factor in Russia's interests in the future Afghan settlement, just as it has consistently ignored the Kremlin's calls to combat the soaring drug production in Afghanistan and rejected Russian protests against the deployment of missile defences in Europe.

The Kremlin is further worried about the fallout of the proposed deal with the Taliban for former Soviet Central Asia. A Taliban comeback threatens to destabilise the region, which has recently been rocked by new waves of violence. Security forces in Tajikistan repeatedly clashed with Islamist groups in the past winter, and Kyrgyzstan is still reeling from a violent regime change last year followed by bloody ethnic clashes.

Three days after bin Laden's death Russia's anti-narcotics chief Viktor Ivanov called for the return of Russian border guards to Tajikistan, which they left in 2005.

Russia suspects that even as the U.S. prepares to pull out of Afghanistan it will dig in in Central Asia. A top Russian military analyst warned that the U.S. and NATO will now work to upgrade their military outposts in the region and extend their Afghanistan-centred mandates.

“Central Asia is the scene of growing geopolitical rivalry between the leading regional and global power centres,” said Sergei Chekinov, head of the Centre for Military Strategy Research of the Russian General Staff. “The West seeks wider access to energy resources in Central Asia and a foothold to advance its interests beyond the region.”

Speaking after bin Laden's death Mr. Chekinov called for strengthening the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Russia-dominated defence pact of former Soviet states.

“The CSTO is the main structure capable of providing security for Central Asia and it must develop a defence strategy to boost stability in the region,” the General Staff expert said in an interview.

Russia is also apprehensive that the killing of bin Laden may strengthen the hand of a rising interventionist lobby in the White House that reportedly persuaded a reluctant President Barack Obama to launch military action in Libya, which within a month escalated to a full-fledged covert war against the Qadhafi government. Moscow said it saw it as a dangerous tendency.

“When so-called civilized world is attacking a small country with all its power, destroying the infrastructures created for generations… I do not like this,” Mr. Putin said on a recent visit to Denmark. “Why should we intervene in this conflict? Don't we have other weird regimes in the world? Should we intervene in internal conflicts everywhere? [...] Should we bomb all these countries?” he asked rhetorically.

Moscow has wisely concluded that before it receives answers to these questions it has little reason to cheer bin Laden's killing.

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