The Policy World Meets Academia: Designing U.S. Policy toward Russia

Chapter 10: Russia's War on Terrorism

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Timothy J. Colton, Timothy Frye, and Robert Legvold
U.S. Policy Toward Russia

Monica Duffy Toft

In November 2009 and March 2010, terrorists struck again in Russia. In November, bombers attacked the Nevsky Express, a luxury train on the St. Petersburg-Moscow line. Twenty-six people died, and more than one hundred were wounded when a bomb derailed the last three carriages of the train near the town of Bolgoye (about 250 miles northwest of Moscow). In March, two female suicide bombers struck Moscow’s subway system at the height of the morning commute. These separate bombings resulted in thirty-nine dead and sixty injured. Then came the claims of responsibility from “a North Caucasus Islamist group” calling itself the “Caucasian Mujuhadeen,” and then from Doku Umarov, the leader of the Chechen resistance who is dedicated to achieving independence for Chechnya.1 These stories, along with countless others over the past decade, has led many to consider “terrorism in Russia” and “Islamic fundamentalist terror” worldwide to be two parts of the same phenomenon.

The Russian Federation is especially keen to emphasize that Russia’s war against Islamist terror is only one theater of the “global war on terror” promulgated by the George W. Bush administration throughout its 2000 to 2008 tenure. This connection to the global Islamist struggle, however, is only minimally correct. Russia does suffer from terrorist violence, as well as from organized criminal violence, but “Islamist” violence is actually quite rare. In fact, from 2000 to 2008, only 4 percent of the violent attacks that took place on Russian soil in the Caucasus were carried out by actors connected with Islam. Instead, most of the violence is driven by grievances over Russia’s heavy hand in regions of concern, such as the North Caucasus. This disconnect between the public imagination and facts on the ground suggests important policy implications. In particular, as the United States looks forward to pressing the “reset” button on its relations with Russia, it must carefully evaluate the degree to which Russia’s counterterrorist policies may affect the United States’ own security interests, in both the short and long term.

In this essay, I present the facts regarding the distribution and sources of Islamist violence in contemporary Russia and the relationship between terrorism in Russia and Russian counterterrorist strategy. I emphasize that although continuing to approach Russia as an ally in a “global war on terror” is dangerous, close cooperation with Russia is nonetheless essential for reframing a joint approach to effective counterterrorism.


Contemporary accounts of terrorist attacks emanating from Russia almost invariably include a religious extremist frame. In a minority of cases, this depiction is accurate. Understanding Islamic extremism is therefore a vital concern for the Russian Federation. However, the violence that plagues Russia’s southern flank is predominantly driven by grievance over the hopeless economic conditions, the devastated physical infrastructure, and the conduct of Russia’s military and special operations forces in the region.

In addition to adopting strict counterterrorism legislation, which allows for the swift and brutal suppression of any activity deemed “terrorist” and for the creation of new bodies to oversee and coordinate counterterrorism activities, Russia has dramatically constrained public access to information on operations and casualties.2 It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the characterization of violence (or selective reporting) tends to emphasize Islamic extremism.3 There are two main reasons for this emphasis. First, if Russia’s enemies in the Caucasus are religious extremists, then rebuilding devastated physical infrastructure, implementing plans to rebuild the region’s economy, and punishing Russian war criminals will have little impact on the likelihood or intensity of a future attack. Islamic extremists are imagined—not without some validity—as a force of nature rather than a rational adversary with which the Russian leadership can bargain. Conversely, grievance-based terror attacks have the capacity, in the rare cases in which they capture unmediated access to a public audience, to expose the Russian government’s shortcomings. In the Nord-Ost hostage crisis of 2002, for instance, the Chechen terrorists who took over the theater were able to state their demands publicly. They did not call for the independence of Chechnya or for an Islamic Caliphate. Instead, the taking of hostages was intended to publicize the plight of Chechen noncombatants in Russia’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign. For domestic political reasons, then, “Islamic” terror is vital to the Russian government’s cost-saving and incompetence-hiding strategies.4

The second reason the term “Islamic” is attached to terror attacks in Rus sia is that the Medvedev government (and the Putin government before it) understands very clearly that the U.S. government will be constrained in its criticism of Russia by a large and vocal U.S. public that strongly associates “terror” with “Islam.” The Bush administration, to its credit, was at pains to point out that this connection is unfair and in many cases spurious. Yet at the same time it depended on a constituency of fundamentalist Christians who increasingly came to understand U.S. foreign policy as a kind of crusade against jihadis who, by definition, were Muslims. The Bush administration may have envied the Russian Federation’s success in constraining civil liberties—journalistic freedom, in particular—and in responding ruthlessly to terror. Even the Obama administration is constrained by this unfair but increasingly ubiquitous association of terror and suicide attacks with Islam.

These widespread perceptions have important policy implications. The issues at stake thus far can be summarized as:

  1. Both the United States and the Russian Federation face an ongoing and active threat from radical Islamist organizations and their militant operatives.
  2. That threat is dramatically inflated in the Russian Federation for two reasons: (1) the Russian government can avoid the expense of physical reconstruction and economic recovery initiatives by characterizing its adversaries as irrational; and (2) it can deflect international criticism of how it engages in counterterrorism (generally a lack of accountability abetting a deliberate policy of extrajudicial killing, torture, murder, and private organized criminal activity) by insisting that its actions in the Caucasus make it a bulwark against the spread or intensification of Islamic fundamentalism abroad.


What does terrorism in the North Caucasus region really look like? What proportion of the violence is directed by religious groups (specifically, Islamic extremists), and what amount is directed by other groups? Is there a connection, as repeatedly asserted by the Putin and now the Medvedev administration, between international jihadis and local violence? What are the aims of those perpetrating the violence? How has the level of violence been affected, if at all, by recent Russian counterterrorism efforts?

A recent paper I cowrote with Yuri Zhukov has examined some of these questions to discern whether the violence in the Caucasus is driven by jihadists with a global Islamist agenda or is the result of local politics and grievances.5 We find that, as stated above, “Islamic” extremist violence accounts for less than 4 percent of the terrorist attacks that took place on Russian soil in the last decade. Thus, more than 95 percent of terror attacks against Russia are carried out by groups other than Islamic extremists.

Of the 4 percent of attacks that are evidently driven by an Islamist agenda, we find that this violence is not related in any credible way to international Islamic groups (such as al-Qaeda and its offshoots). The data reveal that the violence in the Caucasus is independent of transnational Islamic extremist violence.

What are the objectives of the various parties? The aims of the non-Islamic groups tend to be negative (the cessation of some unbearable burden or practice) rather than positive (the creation of an independent state or transnational Caliphate). Furthermore, and not surprisingly, the bulk of these grievances are associated with Russian counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. In other words, Russian repression is driving Russian terror. Most of what has been written about the Islamic extremists who undertake terrorist attacks in Russia is true: they seek the formation of a vast, transnational Islamic Caliphate in what is now Central Asia. However, they are a minority actor and minimally responsible for most of the violent activity in the Caucasus.

In sum, while the causes of recent upheaval in the North Caucasus remain opaque to audiences beyond the Russian government, independent observers have confirmed much of this information. These observers are fearful of an impending escalation in the quality and frequency of terror attacks likely to emanate from the region.


If Russia’s record in counterinsurgency (including counterterrorism) is so problematic, why does it continue?6 It is easy, and right, to criticize the Russian government’s many failings in the Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it is also important to note that the Russian Federation is a young government, and when faced with crisis, is apt to default to old ways. Its ministers and leaders were all raised in a different era, and old habits will not easily be replaced, even if many of them are counterproductive.

Outside observers of Russia have accurately remarked that Russia has become progressively less democratic since it became independent in 1991. Less widely recognized is Russia’s cultural tendency to respond to security threats by according more power to the state. Russia is hardly alone in this practice, but unlike the United States and its Western European allies, whose governments were largely de-secularized following the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648), the Russian Empires (Tsarist and Communist) never fully separated “church” and state. The Tsarist rule rested on two fundamentalpillars: (1) the authority of God (the Tsar embodied both the highest secular and religious authority in a single person) and (2) the ability to lead Russians to victory in war. (Russia’s unexpected and humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, along with early disasters in East Prussia in 1914, severely undermined the legitimacy of the Tsar’s rule and, more than any other factor, made possible the 1917 Revolution that destroyed the Russian monarchy.) Although the new government was called an atheist regime, the October Revolution of 1917 merely replaced one religion with another: Marxism.

This point cannot be too strongly emphasized. Marxist-Leninist ideology performed precisely the same function that religion performed in pre-Westphalian principalities. It entitled elites to virtually unlimited power (checked only by challenges from other similarly endowed elites), and most important, it made any challenge to state or government policy from within tantamount to the cardinal sin of heresy.

This background adds perspective to the continuity in the Russian government’s responses to threats —especially internal threats—to its authority.It also explains why Russian heads of state often blunder in their political, social, and economic domestic policies and why corruption and ineptitude are so difficult to eradicate. In most democratic states, when war is not imminent, a system of checks and balances pits proponents of policy against critics. Overall, this arrangement results in policies that work better, not only because exposure to criticism acts as a check on potentially harmful ideas and interests,but also because the very process of checking and balancing brings more affected actors into the decision and implementation nexus.

Russia, despite critics’ claims to the contrary, is attempting to straddle the line between popular sovereignty and ancient habits (when in doubt, empower the state). But it does not have an effective system of checks and balances. Corruption and ineptitude are difficult to rein in because any check on central authority tends to be inflated to a threat to that authority and, by extension, to the security of the state. For this reason, challenges to central authority often invoke an excessively harsh response and are generally followed by public calls for the transfer of additional powers to the state (along with a new round of restrictions on civil liberties).7

One natural limit on state power in Western countries is that as states become centralized, their economies suffer. Economic problems create social unrest and affect the state’s ability to defend itself from other states. Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in the USSR was ultimately an artifact of this process. Gorbachev was chosen because it was hoped that he could maintain one-party rule and invigorate Russia’s flagging economy. This strategy failed largely because Gorbachev, though gifted as an analyst and organizer, proved to be a true believer in Soviet ideology. Contemporary China has followed a path Gorbachev was unwilling to consider, abandoning Marxism-Leninism in favor of establishing a sound economy, and, by extension, creating a base for renewed and expanding state power. (Although China may at present seem to be a success, its own path may prove to be just as risky for one-party rule as were Gorbachev’s attempts at reform in the 1980s.)

Russia’s economy has indeed suffered as its government has become more and more authoritarian, but the true damage has been difficult to appreciate due to soaring energy prices and Russia’s large endowment in natural gas and petroleum. All other sectors of Russia’s economy are impaired. A faltering health care and education infrastructure is a true threat to Russia’s national security and has been permissible only with the spread of anti-NATO rhetoric claiming the contrary. Russia’s leaders understand that there is no credible military threat to the Russian Federation from outside its borders. With no imminent war on the horizon, Russia’s ruling elite has been able to siphon off profits from Russia’s energy wealth for personal consumption. By increasing state control of media outlets and allowing secondary education standards to sag, the government is able to shape public perception of security threats and hide its corruption and incompetence.


In 2006, then-President Vladimir Putin signed into law the National Counterterrorism Committee (NCC), a new, more powerful, and more centralized agency for countering terrorism in Russia.8 Prior efforts (stemming primarily from acknowledged government failures that contributed to the Beslan hostage disaster of 2004) had distributed key counterterrorism responsibilities among several ministries, with mixed results. The NCC, by contrast, would be run by Russia’s most effective government organ, the Federal Security Bureau (FSB).

The NCC was to have three core responsibilities (and the resources needed to carry them out): (1) counterterrorism doctrine, policy, and legislation; (2) coordination of the federal government’s counterterrorism efforts; and (3) “measures to counter terrorism and remove the causes and conditions which facilitate it.”9 The difficulty with this reasonable organizational shift is that Russia continued to define “underlying causes” as, primarily, “bandits with beards and turbans.” In this interpretation, “measures” means killing terrorists rather than tackling unemployment, building shelters, hospitals, and libraries, and staffing schools. Simon Saradzhyan carefully notes that some in the security services understand that economic issues and grievances from abuse suffered at the hands of counterinsurgency operations matter; nonetheless, the amount of resources actually devoted to these underlying causes remains severely stunted.

Russia is hardly unique in this regard; U.S. and Israeli counterinsurgency policies look very similar. In all three cases—Russia, the United States, and Israel —counterinsurgency operations tend to focus on finding and killing terrorists and pay only lip service to the question of why each state might be the repeated target of violence. One constraint on the United States and Israel is the fear that attempting to understand terrorist groups’ motivations would be viewed as justification for terrorist acts. It should be clear, however, that whatever the legitimacy of the grievance, under no circumstances is murder justified. Still, it is possible, if at times uncomfortable, to ascertain which grievances are legitimate and, among these, which the state can reasonably engage.


There is one exception to the general rule that Russia responds to insurgency with extreme and indiscriminate (near-genocidal) violence. Ironically, this example comes from the same region troubling Russia today. After its victory in the Napoleonic Wars, Russia turned its attention to the conquest of the Caucasus. In 1816, Russia sent one of its most talented and beloved generals, Alexei Yermolov, to conquer and “pacify” the region. Reasoning that his adversaries were godless savages, Yermolov instituted a brutal policy against the tribes of the Caucasus (descendants of today’s Dagestanis and Chechens). The brutality had two effects. First, it tilted the balance of power away from the older, more conservative religious leaders (Islam came late to the Caucasian tribes, but after seven years of Yermolov, its influence became widespread), who counseled peace and inner purification, to the younger clerics who counseled war and purification by the sword. Second, it expanded a pool of grievances into a sea of them. By the time Yermolov reported to the Tsar in 1822 that he had “succeeded” in pacifying the Caucasus, he had done little more than set the stage for perhaps the greatest asymmetric conflict in history, the Murid War of 1830 to 1859.

That war, which pitted Imam Shamyl—Third Imam of Dagestan—against not one, but three successive Tsars, has been well recounted elsewhere.10 For our purposes, however, it should suffice to note three important features. First, the conflict was made possible by Russia’s excessive cruelty in the preceding years. Second, it set Orthodox Christian Russia in opposition to a newly unified and manifestly Islamic resistance. Third, it was brought to an end as much from kindness and reconciliation as from attrition.

Though Yermolov started the war, Prince Bariatinsky finished it. The young Bariatinsky, authorized by his reformist Tsar to attempt negotiation with Shamil and his vassals, instituted a program of amnesty. He permitted adult males—nominally peasant subjects of His Majesty—to continue to bear the kindjal, a dagger marking a young boy’s accession to manhood. He paid large sums of his own fortune as bribes and reparations for damage caused by his soldiers, and he respected the security of any who surrendered to him or to his lieutenants. He punished looters and rapists among his troops, and above all, he insisted his men treat the Tsar’s adversaries as human beings.

It was an entirely novel approach. We will never know whether the subsequent rapid collapse of Shamyl’s resistance (he was eventually captured and given a lifelong pension by the Tsar) was due to Bariatinsky’s novel “hearts and minds” strategy or to simple exhaustion: the war had gone on for twenty-nine years. But it is worth noting that the Murids were unprepared for their adversaries’ kindness and humanity. It profoundly dislocated them.

The point here is not to advocate a policy of “kindness” per se, only to remind readers that a sound counterinsurgency strategy skillfully combines discriminate violence with an attention to the grievances that motivate public support for (or apathy toward) insurgents.


Understanding how insurgency and counterinsurgency interact is only one part of the problem, however. It is yet unclear how the United States and Russia can move forward given their tendency to regard each other as international rivals hurtling toward a new confrontation and the challenge of countering a menace that, while not directly threatening to either state, is still painful. The chief difficulty is that each state has convinced large swaths of its public that (1) the source of most terror (and the most extreme terror) is Islamic groups; (2) those who seek to harm the state are not rational actors; and (3) it therefore makes little sense to devote resources to (a) identifying and (b) addressing their grievances. Changing this public perception will be a challenge, and in this effort, two avenues must be explored. First, social and political elites in the United States and Russia should begin a concerted effort to downplay the intensity of the threat posed by contemporary terror attacks. Though upsetting, terrorist activity does not threaten national survival to the degree, for example, that a major conventional or nuclear war would. Annual traffic fatalities drastically exceed the number of deaths caused by terror attacks in the majority of advanced-industrial states. Yet most people have become reconciled to the risks of automobile transport. If the perceived danger of terrorism were likewise successfully mitigated, an excessively militarized response to terror could be prevented. Second, local grievances must be addressed and, where appropriate, engaged. Much of the terrorism that takes place in the world is based simply on retribution for perceived wrongs. Sometimes, as in the case of the Zapatistas in Chiapas in the 1990s, these grievances are real and legitimate. In other instances, such as Oum Shinrikyo’s desire to end all life on earth, terrorist violence is neither motivated by legitimate grievances nor actionable.

It has been widely recognized for more than a decade that the single greatest grievance-producing machine in the Islamic world is the plight of Palestinian Arabs and the widespread perception that the United States has been and will remain a reliable supporter of harsh and unjust (even illegal) Israeli repression of Palestinian Arab national and religious freedom.11 Israeli governments have differed in their approach to Arab and Palestinian Arab terror, but it is frequently observed that the closer an Israeli government moves toward a fair and comprehensive settlement with the Palestinian Arabs, the less popular it becomes and the more at risk individual members of that government and their families become. The same might also be said of the Palestinian Arab side.

Interestingly, however, in the Russian case, the bulk of the violence directed against the government from within the country is driven not by religious issues, but by a strong desire for retribution for Russian abuses, or by a sense of hopelessness and boredom (better to die in battle against Russians than to suffer). Thus, Russia has within its power the capacity to undermine the grievances that produce terrorist violence. Russia has an advantage not enjoyed by the United States: if the government can hide its abuses and mistakes in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus, it can also lie about a new strategy of reconciliation and reconstruction. The government can threaten to “wipe them out in their outhouses,” 12 and make promises to rebuild the physical infrastructure and create jobs in areas it destroyed during previous counterinsurgency operations.

Like the United States, the Russian Federation rewards political elites who militarize their response to terrorist violence. At the same time, it rebukes those who advocate more comprehensive counterinsurgency policies aimed at engaging both a group’s militants and the public support (or grievances) on which the militants depend. Each state therefore faces similar challenges but with different constraints and opportunities. For the United States, the threat of Islamic terror has been exaggerated, and the public seems largely convinced that most terror, and the most serious terror, is “Islamic.” President Obama and other senior members of his administration and Congress must begin the hard task of attempting to reverse this image. Research aimed at identifying the sources of terror can help a great deal (or help protect against the accusation that such efforts are politically motivated). Furthermore, the United States must make a greater effort to bring about a permanent solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. The current policy of the Israeli government (expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories) directly damages U.S. security interests (and Israeli interests as well), because it underscores the unjust treatment of Palestinian Arabs and claims that the United States and its “Christian” allies support such policies. Neither task will be easy; both may prove impossible. But acting otherwise is apt to be more costly over time.

The United States must approach Russia as an equal partner and must publicly and frequently refer to Russia as a world power and leader (even if it is neither). The United States should also freeze NATO expansion, but only when this move can be seen as a unilateral initiative of the United States, rather than a response to a Russian demand. Russia above all craves status and recognition as a great power, hence public acknowledgment of Russia’s eminence can only help U.S.-Russia relations. This charm offensive should include offers to increase joint U.S.-Russian counterterrorist cooperation, so long as it is understood in the United States that this alliance will make no practical difference on the ground, either for the United States or for Russia. Again, the purpose of the charm offensive is to prepare for a longer-term relationship with a more practical, mature Russia. A well-run charm offensive may also have the side benefit of undermining conservatives inside Russia and opening its political system to slightly more moderate politicians.

Yet there is not much the United States can do materially to affect Russia’s war on terror.13 Criticizing Russia’s human-rights record is fair but accomplishes nothing save the further de-democratization of Russia. One can only hope that the combination of a U.S. charm offensive and a decade of costly failure (perhaps aided by a dip in energy prices) may convince Russia to begin the hard and unfamiliar work of rebuilding its education and health care infrastructure, reforming government, stemming corruption, and relaxing the restrictions on civil liberties that stifle healthy criticism and impede a check on government excess.


1. Doku Umarov is one of Russia’s most wanted terrorists. He is a veteran field commander who calls himself president of the “Chechen Republic of Ichkeria,” the name separatists use to connote a Chechnya independent of Russia; BBC News, “Islamists Claim Russia Train Bomb,” December 2, 2009; Kommersant, 226 (4281), December 3, 2009; Ellen Barry, “Chechen Rebel Says He Planned Attacks,” The New York Times, March 31, 2010.

2. Simon Saradzhyan, “Russia’s System to Combat Terrorism and its Application in Chechnya,” National Counter-Terrorism Strategies 14 (2006).

3. According to one account, for example, the Kremlin insisted at one point on a particular glossary of terms to describe rebel fighters in Chechnya, adamant that “Chechen terrorism” be termed “international terrorism” and that the local Muslim community “jamaat” be replaced with “terrorist organization”; Igor Torbakov, “War on Terrorism in the Caucasus: Russia Breeds Jihadists,” North Caucasus Analysis 6 (42) (2005).

4. In a related argument, Russia turns the blame for the Caucasians’ complaints back on them: when Dagestanis or Chechens argue that Russia owes them for the destruction and damage caused by Russia’s counterterrorism operations, Russia reacts by arguing that the extreme poverty and physical destruction these regions suffer are punishment for their previous toleration (or support) of terrorists. In addition, some Russians hope that the scale of the damage may act to deter future or related actions by others, as in, “Look what happened to Grozny. If you don’t want that to happen to you, do not allow these ‘bandits’ to go off marauding against us.” By that measure, independent of expense or ongoing efforts to keep the government from looking imperfect, a serious reconstruction effort and a successful effort to boost employment may negate the deterrent effect of the current misery. These arguments are usually not captured by opinion polls, but in casual conversation.

5. The paper examines data compiled from all violent episodes in the Caucasus region from 2000 to 2008. Of nearly 28,000 violent incidents, only 1,200 had a religious basis, either involving religious actors or displaying religious motivation. See Monica Duffy Toft and Yuri Zhukov, “Violence in the Caucasus: Global Jihad or Local Politics?” paper presented at the annual International Studies Association Convention, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 17–20, 2010.

6. Although Russia formally ceased its counterterrorism operations in Chechnya in April 2009, violence continues. The Moscow-installed Kadyrov regime continues to act lawlessly in its arrest and prosecution of perceived enemies.

7. Russia is not alone here. The British implemented restrictions on civil liberties in response to the threat of terrorism from Northern Ireland, and the United States is still trying to strike a balance between security and liberty as it deals with countering terrorism.

8. Saradzhyan, “Russia’s System to Combat Terrorism and its Application in Chechnya.”

9. Russian-language Regulations of National Counter-Terrorism Committee, approved by Edict of the President of the Russian Federation, no. 116, February 15, 2006; amended August 2, 2006.

10. The classic in English is John F. Baddeley, Russian Conquest of the Caucasus (London: Long-mans, Green, 1908). More recent accounts can be found in Moshe Gammer, Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan (London: Frank Cass, 1994); and Ivan Arreguín-Toft, How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

11. We should note here that Osama bin Laden’s most recent statements released to the world on January 24, 2010 and March 25, 2010 (assuming it was bin Laden, which as of this writing was not yet fully confirmed) talked of the Palestinian issue as a key reason for al-Qaeda’s continued attacks on the United States and the West more generally.

12. Putin, referring to Chechen forces at the start of the war in 1999; see,, and

13. In fact, a recent poll indicates that roughly one-third of Russians believe that the United States is fomenting terrorism in Russia as a way to weaken Russia; Moskovsky Komsomolets 195, September 3, 2009. This sentiment is becoming more common. In a December 2009 interview, for instance, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov accused the West of agitating violence in Georgia as a way to gain control over the entire Caucasus; see Michael Stott, “Interview–West Using Rebels to Destroy Russia–Chechen Chief,” Reuters, December 21, 2009, Also see BBC News, “Russian Commentary Criticizes FSB for Blaming ‘Alien Foes’ for Domestic Problems,” October 19, 2009.