Russia's Domestic Security Nightmare

"In its totality, Russia’s domestic terrorism problem is more like Pakistan’s than America’s."

The two terrorist attacks in Volgograd, Russia—on consecutive days—are a true tragedy. The twin bombings have killed dozens and have wounded many more. Both American values and American interests compel the United States to condemn the attacks and express support for Russia’s people and government in dealing with extremist terrorism.

While the appropriate immediate U.S. response is clear, however, Russia’s response to terrorism has been uncertain and a mixed success. The recent attacks in Volgograd followed another bombing in the city in October and occurred in the context of regular domestic terrorism throughout Russia, including in its capital Moscow. This raises an apparently paradoxical question: how have terrorist attacks become commonplace in what many outside the country view as a police state?

On one level, Russia’s leadership team must be among the most experienced in the world in dealing with domestic security. President Vladimir Putin is not only a former KGB officer, but also briefly led the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Soviet KGB’s successor agency, before assuming his current post. His Kremlin chief of staff, Sergey Ivanov, has a similar background, as does Nikolai Patrushev, who heads Russia’s Security Council. And Russia has been quite successful in other areas—just look at its foreign policy, where Mr. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov turned weak cards into winning hands in both Syria and Ukraine in 2013, in no small part by understanding others’ limitations.

Nevertheless, Russia’s officials have not yet found an effective approach to maintaining domestic security—one of the most basic functions of government. How can this be?

First, Russia has over 10 million Muslim citizens and while the vast majority are moderate and peaceful, many—especially in the North Caucasus—resent Russian rule. Though murdering civilians is unjustifiable however one feels, their attitudes have deep historical roots as some of their ancestors fought bitterly to avoid incorporation into the Russian empire in the nineteenth century and others faced severe repression, forced relocation, and internal exile under Soviet leader Josef Stalin. By way of contrast, Christian Georgia joined the tsarist empire voluntarily and Georgians integrated successfully into both the aristocracy and the intellectual elite. (They even held a privileged place in Stalin’s U.S.S.R., as Stalin himself was a Georgian.)

On top of this, many of Russia’s Muslims live in poorer regions or face hostility when they travel or work elsewhere—something that further expands the pool of disenchanted or angry potential terrorists. Moreover, unlike in the United States or Europe, many of Russia’s Muslims live in predominantly Muslim regions with sometimes-rough terrain, considerable geographic scope, and centuries-old family and clan networks difficult for outsiders to penetrate. In its totality, Russia’s domestic terrorism problem is more like Pakistan’s than America’s. In fact, Russia’s problem may be worse than Pakistan’s, because Moscow can’t risk using (or tacitly permitting) armed drone attacks on its own territory.

Second, contrary to Western conventional wisdom, Russia is not a police state. The Russian government imposes significant limits on civil liberties, but generally permits free movement. Widespread restrictions on travel inside Russia would both violate the country’s existing laws and provoke destabilizing opposition. Likewise, Russia’s electronic surveillance capabilities are less extensive than generally recognized due to limited funding and shortages of advanced equipment. Mr. Putin may have been only half joking when he said in a recent press conference that he envied President Barack Obama’s domestic surveillance.

Third, like almost every other problem in Russia, the terrorism challenge is magnified by pervasive corruption that turns roadside checkpoints into tollbooths and neighborhood sweeps into shakedowns. Those who can pay often find a way through restrictive security measures—as was documented in Russia’s investigation following the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis in 2002, in which 40-50 terrorist took over 800 hostages, of whom more than 100 eventually died.

Fourth, the officers in Russia’s investigative agencies often just don’t work that effectively. According to some reports, conviction rates in Russian courts are as high as 99%. With near-certainty that anyone arrested will go to jail, why waste time and effort on detailed investigations to produce unnecessary evidence? President Putin has pressed for improvement in this area, and there has been some, but Russia’s federal and local investigators have a long way to go.

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly to many in the United States, Russia’s security services rarely employ pro-active techniques that have become both common and effective in America. This is in part a legacy of the horrible excesses of Stalin’s purges, when the Soviet Union’s first secret police, the NKVD, killed hundreds of thousands after anonymous denunciations. While the FBI is often able to lure individuals suspected of having sympathy for terrorists into fake plots—and then prosecute them for conspiracy or related crimes—Russia’s police and security agencies could face significant public backlash if they tried the same tactics, especially based on an anonymous tip.