The horrific mass murder of schoolchildren and their families in Beslan, Russia, by Chechen terrorists has brought widespread sympathy from Americans for the victims and for the Russian people. Many Americans have also felt encouraged by the mass rallies in Moscow against terrorism and by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vow to take unilateral action anywhere in the world against terrorists. The hope has risen that, after opposing the U.S. in Iraq, Russia is now “on side” in the fight against militant Islam.
But the reality is far more complicated.
Russian foreign policy has long been opposed to fundamental American interests—before and after 9/11—despite official statements from the Putin government and the beliefs of many Russia experts in American academia and policy circles. And there is little indication that Russia’s policies will change for the better. Even if they did, Russia has a poor record in waging low-intensity conflicts and any action it may take could easily backfire.
Russia has long been a key supporter of rogue states in the Middle East, even building a nuclear reactor for the atomic ayatollahs in Tehran. Only with Russian assistance has Iran been able to sustain its nuclear weapons program.
Russia played a crucial role in rearming Saddam Hussein after the First Gulf War. Russian contractors from companies with close links to the Russian military were meeting with Saddam and his inner circle almost until the very end of that corrupt and brutal regime. Russia not only provided basic weapons but also more sophisticated items, such as night vision equipment. Belarus, whose megalomaniac dictator is closely tied to Russia, was helping to rebuild Saddam’s air defense system and providing a wide range of other weapons to the Iraqi dictator (many shipped through Syria). It is unlikely the Belarusans would have done this without tacit Russian approval.
In return, money from Saddam’s oil for food program greased the wheels for Russian officials, both inside the government and in the semi-official channels where real power is distributed in Russia. Documents found in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam revealed that the largest number of payoffs went to Russian recipients, most of them of them governmental or quasi-governmental.
There is no indication that the massacre in Belsan will result in any change in a Russian policy that has paid such dividends for Russia’s leaders. There may be tough talk and an increase in military activity along Russia’s southern border, but real change is highly unlikely. Ordinary Russians, like those slaughtered in Beslan, will be the losers. (Though to be accurate, most of the victims of the school massacre were ethnic Ossetians.)
In a normal society, the government acts to protect its citizens. In America, 9/11 not only led to widespread outrage and anger, it forced our government to make major changes in an effort to prevent further attack. In Russia, the government simply does not care about its people. There, the people exist to serve the state, not the state the people. So while Russian leaders will use the murder of children in Beslan to further their own goals, fundamental change is unlikely.
The Russian leadership has traditionally seen its own people as expendable. During World War II, NVKD troops forced masses of raw recruits to charge at gunpoint across Nazi minefields to clear the way for Soviet tanks. This attitude was best summed up by seventeenth century Russian leaders who, after their massive army was wiped out in an attempted invasion of Poland, responded: “We have a lot of people.”
Russian “help” in the fight against Islamic extremism is likely to hurt the U.S. and its allies. Russia’s effort to suppress rebellious Chechnya has featured indiscriminate bombing of towns and cities, mass execution of civilians, torture, and countless other abuses. Furthermore, if history is any guide, Russia is likely to target moderate Chechens that can be easily located and shot rather than the hardcore fanatics responsible for the school massacre.
Chechyna today is a lawless wasteland where the innocent are punished because the guilty have fled to the hills with guns and it is too much trouble to root them out. Russian tactics have not only proven totally ineffective—demonstrating that they learned little from the Afghan fiasco in the 1980s—but have hardened Chechen resistance. Contrast this with the U.S. approach in both Afghanistan and Iraq: careful use of precision weapons, surgical ground strikes led by special forces, an emphasis on gathering local intelligence, quickly restoring civilian infrastructure, and training a cadre of local allies who have a stake in stabilizing the country.
Russia’s fundamental interests include reducing American power and influence, and re-establishing control over neighboring countries that gained independence in the early 1990s. These goals have been open secrets for years and often politely ignored by American policymakers and their academic fellow travelers. Russia’s pursuit of these interests can only increase regional instability and, if pursued aggressively enough, provide new breeding grounds for terror. It could also poison America’s effort to bring some measure of stability to countries like Afghanistan.
Americans must be very careful about listening to government statements from Russian officials; they sound good but have little substance. As in France and Germany, such officials know how to play the American media like a fine violin, realizing it is the key to shaping American opinion. They must also be careful about the mainstream media’s favorite Russia experts, many of whom are recycled Sovietologists whose ability to accurately assess events in Russia is infamously poor.
The internal discourse in Russia is quite different than what appears in official statements directed toward the West. The foreign policy and military establishment remains committed to re-establishing an empire, not combating terrorism. Many aspects of the Beslan massacre and the military’s miscues during the rescue have been covered up to present a sanitized version of elite special forces doing their best to save the trapped children. The Russian public, however, is deeply skeptical of the official version of events. While outraged by the massacre, few believe their government has told them the whole truth. Russians are hardly uniting behind the Putin regime as Americans did behind George Bush in the wake of 9/11.
Under such circumstances, America must be very cautious in accepting Russia as a bone fide partner in the global war on terror. Naturally, real Russian help would be welcome, but while Russia continues its aid for Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its opposition to America’s effort to rebuild a stable Iraq, this is one “ally” we cannot afford to trust.
John Radzilowski, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Piast Institute, Detroit, and is the author or co-author of 11 books and numerous articles. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.