Putin's nightmares: Spreading insurgency, rising China

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By Sol Sanders

Sol W. Sanders

October 20, 2005

Nothing gives the lie to frequent speculation of effective anti-U.S. alliances among Russia, China [sometimes India despite its flirtation with Washington] and some of the former Soviet republics than the events in mid-October in Nalchik. This city is capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, a semi-autonomous Rusian republic in the Caucasus mountains. During two days’ bitter urban warfare, Moscow proved once again its now decade-long two wars to subdue breakaway neighboring Chechnya Moslems has failed miserably.

In fact, the ethnic-based conflict usurped by Islamic fanatics is spreading, threatening to erode the whole Russian southern flank and more. There was not much, either, to suggest Russian suppression tactics are still anything but brutish. Writing in The Moscow Times, Yulia Latynina of Ekho Moskvy radio: “The main goal of the Nalchik raid was to force the authorities to fight terror with terror, because terror mixed with incompetence and corruption produces many more militants than it eliminates.” The episiode was cloaked in the usual confused officialese. But after special forces subdued the rebels, Moscow claimed more than 90 attackers were killed, but admitted 35 policemen and 9 civilians also died.

The terrorists achieved their aim: witnesses reported near chaos with wounded ferried in cars, repeated blasts across the city, threatening helicopters hovering overhead, buildings burning and terrorists car-jacking to escape. There were inevitable Internet counter claims by Shamil Basayev, Russia’s most notrious terrorist Chechen leader at large, claiming he masterminded the attack by what he called the “Caucasus Front”. Fact is, most of the fighters appeared to be locals which is even more worrying for Moscow.

As the terrorism spreads northward, into areas of mixed Moslem and Orthodox populations, tactics on both sides ignite old passions. They aggravate tensions in important Russian Federation areas with large Moslem minorities among 30-odd ethnic groups — e.g., Tatarstan, total population 4 million, about half Russian — and in now independent former Central Asian republics with large Russian Slav minorities [e.g., one third of Kazakhstan’s 20 million]. There are also lots of Moslems in Russia’s major cities — more than a million in Moscow alone. With Russia’s catastrophic declinning population but a rapid increase among its Moslemnon-Slav [from whom its armed forces are increasingly drawn], the long term threat is obvious.

Although Moscow claims its forces performed better than in other recent disastrous encounters, lack of Russian professionalism explains in part tactical successes of the terrorists. Perhaps even more important, the sorry Russian tale of unrestrained counterterror and corruption is damaging the supposed joint effort with the U.S. and its allies to suppress international Islamofascism. Moscow’s failures reinforce the confusion in some West European human rights circles about the Chechen insurgency, whatever its original justification. Its links to international terrorism has made it as much of a totem as “Palestine” for Islamicist propagandists.

On a broader front, Moscow’s efforts to allign itself with China in Central Asia through the Chinese-initiated Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] has turned from its original aim of fighting terrorism to opposing U.S. presence in Central Asia. The SCO tried to capitalize on American public denunications of bloody suppression of seemingly legitimate business interests by Uzbekistan’s notorious dictator President Islam Karimov. Not only did Putin and the SCO fawn on Karimov for booting the U.S off a base used in the Afghanistan cleanup, but they called for the U.S. to leave the region — ignoring the continuing threat not only of the neo-Taliban in Afghanistan but other regional Islamicists, a menace for all Cenral Asia’s secularist regimes.

Putin’s pretensions are floating on a sea of high oil prices and armaments sales to China and India from a de-escalating military-industrial complex. But the country is a long way from recovering from half a century of Communist waste and corruption. It is no wonder given all the problems obvious to Russians on a day-to-day basis opinion polls report ordinary citizens worried about the possible breakup of the post-Soviet Russian Federation.

Russian military doctrine holds to anti-NATO theses, or collaborates in exercises with the Chinese ostensibly aimed at suppressing a coup in one of their dissident areas, or with the Indians on an even more ambiguous enemy. Tens of millions of U.S. dollars have gone into the U.S. aid program to try to reorganize the Soviet legacy of decaying nuclear warheads and marine power plants. Even though Moscow remains a formidable nuclear and missile armed power, an oft announced military overhaul has not taken place.

Surely Putin wakes in the middle of the night to remember sales of fighter planes and warships to the Chinese and signatures to friendship and border treaties does not vitiate the rapidly declining Russian population of minerals-rich Siberia, far closer to Beijing and millions of potential Chinese immigrants than Moscow. Nor the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran with long-range missiles based on North Korean and Chinese technology, too, must bring on the sweats — even in the face of huge profits from Russian technology sales to Tehran.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World

October 20, 2005

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