Russia could take revenge with assault on Caucasus


OPINION:Suspicion over Friday’s train bomb is focused on militants from the strategic region, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLIN

THE SHOCK-WAVES from Friday night’s bomb attack on the Moscow-St Petersburg express will be felt far beyond Russia’s two main cities.

Twenty-five people were killed, almost 100 injured, and many more are still missing, feared dead, after the Nevsky Express was hurled from the rails in remote woodland as it sped north from Moscow to Russia’s old imperial capital.

Investigators have found traces of explosives at the site, and another smaller device blew up on Saturday while rescue teams were still working on the wreckage of the train, which is the most luxurious of its type in Russia and regularly carries politicians and business executives.

No group has claimed responsibility for the atrocity, but suspicion is already focused on militants from the North Caucasus region, whose attacks on Russian targets are becoming more frequent and more audacious.

In the first nine months of this year, more than 420 people were killed in rebel attacks in the neighbouring republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, four times the number killed in the same period last year.

This year’s victims include senior police and army officers, local politicians and judges, and the militants came close to killing the Kremlin-appointed president of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, in a car bomb attack in June.

Chechnya, the main Caucasus battleground of the last decade, is arguably now calmer than Ingushetia and Dagestan, but security service personnel and rebels are now dying daily across the region in clashes that make a mockery of previous Kremlin claims to have full control over the republics.

After prematurely declaring anti-terrorist operations over this spring, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev admitted in this month’s state-of-the-nation address that the situation in the Caucasus was the “most serious domestic political problem for our country”. “The level of corruption, violence, and clan dominance in North Caucasus republics is simply unprecedented,” he said.

The candour of Medvedev’s comments fuelled talk of an impending crackdown in the Caucasus, as did a sudden hardening of the mild-mannered lawyer’s rhetoric. He has called the rebels “terrorist scum” who must be eliminated “without emotion or hesitation”, words that called to mind the order of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, that Chechnya’s militants be killed wherever they are hiding, and even “whacked in the outhouse”.

Putin, now Russia’s prime minister, made that demand 10 years ago, shortly after a series of devastating apartment bombings in Moscow and southern Russia killed more than 200 people in their homes.

The attacks spread fear throughout Russia and brought the insurgency on its southern, mountainous fringe into the “heartland” of the country, convincing people that Chechnya’s separatists had to be crushed and that the tough-talking Putin was the man to do it.

The myriad unanswered questions about the apartment bombings prompted allegations they were carried out by Russia’s security services to provide a pretext for a new Chechen war, which Putin was in the process of launching when the bombs exploded. Several people who made such claims, or investigated the attacks, have been jailed or have died in mysterious circumstances, including agent-turned-whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko.

While there is no suggestion of state involvement in Friday’s Nevsky Express explosion, it could have a similar impact to the apartment bombings of a decade ago.

Russia’s most prestigious train was targeted because it carried some 700 passengers between the nation’s biggest and most important cities, its political, economic and financial powerhouses, the home of its elite. Putin and Medvedev both hail from St Petersburg, and they have brought many allies from their home town to rule with them in Moscow.

The Nevsky Express was a soft target that carried considerable symbolic weight for Russians, and its destruction will feed political and public calls for severe measures against those responsible.

Ultranationalist groups have been mentioned as possible suspects, but they have never launched an attack on this scale. If, as expected, Caucasian rebels are ultimately blamed, then we may soon see Russian forces surging back into the region to crush them.

Earlier this month exiled Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev said Moscow was preparing to deploy an “enormous” number of troops to the North Caucasus, to establish an iron grip on the region before the nearby resort of Sochi hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“They want to solve the Caucasus problem before the Olympics and tell the world they have eliminated terrorism,” he said. “This will also put the North Caucasus in their hands.”

Renewed large-scale military operations in the region would be a disaster for its people, thousands of whom have died and disappeared in fighting between Islamic militants, clans, organised crime groups, separatist rebels, Russian security forces and local Kremlin-backed leaders whose militias are infamous for their brutality and corruption.

The Kremlin is determined to remain the dominant player in the Caucasus, which is a vital route for exports of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

Russia strengthened its hand considerably last year by crushing Georgia in a six-day war and by recognising the independence of two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Georgians now fear Moscow will use trouble in the North Caucasus as a pretext to launch a new offensive, and senior Russian security officials recently accused Georgia of harbouring rebels in its remote Pankisi Gorge region, which borders Chechnya and Dagestan.

Another war between Russia and Georgia would further damage the latter’s reputation as the West’s most stable and solid partner in the Caucasus, and undermine its place at the centre of US and European Union efforts to create an energy pipeline network that bypasses Russia. For Russians facing a renewed terror threat, the people of the Caucasus who fear a backlash, and western powers with major strategic interests in the region, the fate of the Nevsky Express may be a grim portent of even worse to come.