Russia's Domestic Security Nightmare

December 30, 2013 Topic: Security Region: Russia

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.

Whether or not Russia eventually gets better at combating domestic terrorism, however, the United States and its democratic allies will confront some tough dilemmas as the Sochi Olympic Games draw nearer. Chief among these will be our conflicting imperatives to ensure the safety of American athletes and tourists in Sochi, not to mention everyone else participating in or attending the Games, while also protecting their rights to movement, assembly and speech (within the constraints of the Olympic Charter, which at America’s own insistence discourages use of the Games for political purposes). This dilemma will be even more challenging because numerous visiting heads-of-state and senior officials will be among the hordes of spectators in and around Sochi.

After the Volgograd attacks, Russia is likely to impose strict security measures at the Olympic Games, both within the official venues and in the surrounding areas. And within reason, security has to come first—otherwise the Sochi Games could rapidly evolve from a celebration of humanity to a theater of the inhumane. Unfortunately, while Moscow will presumably send many of its best to Sochi, Russia’s security forces are not yet known for their calibrated handling of complex problems like a peaceful demonstration at an Olympic site. Russia’s government has a responsibility to train its security personnel to handle situations like this and to remind them that the Olympic Village and other areas are lodging and entertainment venues, not a penal colony. Despite this, the combination of an “external” terrorist threat and an “internal” disturbance at Olympic venues could produce some very edgy and unpredictable security officers, especially if there are more attacks elsewhere in Russia between now and then.

With all of this in mind, American or Western activists planning protests at the Olympic Games would do well to consider the possible environment in Sochi at the time. Whatever their shortcomings, Russia’s security personnel may be risking their lives to ensure the safety of those in Sochi. At the same time, others in Russia may be quite sensitive--not unlike Americans after September 11 or, for that matter, after the 1996 bombing at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

The NSA surveillance debate demonstrates that Americans overall understand that fighting terrorism limits freedom. Russia is not a Jeffersonian democracy, but does have to protect itself from vicious murderers. The United States government and U.S. non-profit groups must keep their eyes open to ensure that Moscow does not use security as an excuse for a political crackdown, but should also avoid appearing to oppose Russia’s efforts to protect its citizens across the country as well as foreign visitors in Sochi. It is not an easy balance, but should be a manageable one.

Dimitri K. Simes is president of the Center for the National Interest and publisher of The National Interest. Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest.

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons 3.0.