Moscow subway bombings: What now?

How Russia responds to the Moscow subway bombing terrorist attacks will say much about the direction of Russia itself -- and the power-sharing relationship between Putin and Medvedev.

As Russia mourns those killed in the Moscow subway bombing terrorist attacks this week, its leaders are considering how to respond. One thing they should realize: Brutal tactics against terrorists in the North Caucasus region – the suspected origin of the subway suicide bombers – are not working.

Most Russians outside the region have regarded the iron-fisted strategy of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as effective. When he was president, Mr. Putin headed a war with Chechnya, the second in five years, to put down separatist rebels in this volatile, mostly Muslim republic on Russia’s southern flank.

(For a Monitor op-ed on the deep roots of the conflict in Chechnya, click here.)

IN PICTURES: Moscow metro bombings

In recent years, raw suppression in Chechnya has kept terrorism from seeping north to major cities such as Moscow. Last year, the Kremlin even announced the end of its special counterterrorism operations in the republic.

But the crackdown in Chechnya has fanned flames of resentment, and Islamic extremism and terrorism have spread to surrounding areas in the North Caucasus. Violence in the region is up sharply in the last year – though the mostly state-controlled Russian media hardly report on it. Islamist rebel leader Doku Umarov, who operates in the North Caucasus, has promised to bring war to Russian streets, homes, and cities. He appears to be making good on his word.

Encouragingly, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is open to a more balanced approach. He has named a special envoy to the region, Alexander Khloponin, to get at the root problems in the area – severe joblessness, poverty, and corruption.

In a page straight out of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s playbook on how to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, Mr. Khloponin is working on a strategic development plan to be presented to the Kremlin this summer. The job-creating plan reportedly includes modernizing manufacturing, upgrading technology, and building a university.

Russia would also be well advised to seek greater support from the international community in dealing with its terrorist problem – and there should be much more outside interest in the remote, ignored North Caucasus.

Jihadist violence there is not disconnected from the larger, global war on terrorism. Al Qaeda frequently references Chechnya, and fighters in the area are thought to have been trained in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights is choked with cases from Chechnya.

Good for President Obama for calling President Medvedev on Monday and offering to help bring to justice the perpetrators of the attack (one presumes he means intelligence assistance). That support is another way for the United States to build better relations with Russia, and it’s also helpful because of the common terrorism threat itself.

Indeed, the transatlantic community could do much more in the way of assistance, from aid to the region to discussions with Russia about the security aspect of counterterrorism – minus widespread brutal suppression.

But would Russia be open to such input? And will Medvedev, the handpicked successor of Prime Minister Putin for the presidency, have Putin’s continued support for a hearts-and-minds campaign alongside needed security measures?

Putin is not a hearts-and-minds kind of guy. His popularity is based on economic boom times (now gone) and the restoration of order and Russian international influence after the chaotic Boris Yeltsin years. As president, Putin did away with regional gubernatorial elections to install his own person in Chechnya – and everywhere else in Russia. His crackdown on the media has suppressed reporting from the region. As for international assistance, that’s considered meddling in the eyes of this former KGB man.

How Russia decides to respond to Monday’s bombings will say much about the direction of the country itself, and the power-sharing relationship between Putin and Medvedev. Will the Kremlin repeat Putin’s strategy – alluring in the short term but ineffective over time? Or will it take the more balanced approach of Medvedev, which would necessarily involve a greater liberalness in Russian politics and foreign affairs?

Cracks are appearing in the Medvedev-Putin partnership. And terrorism may widen them.

IN PICTURES: Moscow metro bombings

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