Staunton, June 14 – With the capture of Magas last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has sent a clear signal that he wants to change Moscow’s approach against North Caucasus militants, capturing and condemning them in Russian courts rather than “drowning [them] in the outhouse” as his predecessor Vladimir Putin preferred.
Putin’s political career took off a decade ago when he promised to destroy all militants, a policy he and Moscow have tried to carry out in the decade since then. But that policy has had two unintended consequences. On the one hand, it has radicalized the regime’s opponents – militants have concluded they have nothing to lose -- and allowed them to recruit new fighters.
And on the other and far more seriously from the point of view of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist theory and practice, Putin’s “kill them all” approach has deprived the powers that be both of information about the militants and their plans and of the chance to discredit militant leaders by accusing them of collaboration with the authorities or bringing them to trial.
Last Wednesday, FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov told President Dmitry Medvedev that the Russian special services had captured Ali Taziyev, known as Magas, had transferred him to Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, and were interrogating him about his role in earlier terrorist attacks and the current state of the militant movement (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=20232).
Medvedev replied, according to Russian news agencies, that “it is necessary to do everything for the correct collection of the testimony of this bandit in order that all necessary procedures will be followed and later all those crimes which have been committed will receive a corresponding assessment from the courts.”
A Kremlin source told “Vedomosti” that Moscow hopes to organize a series of “show trials” of bandit leaders in order to organize “a more effective struggle with banditism in the North Caucasus” Few such trials, the paper noted, have been held up to now because Russian officers have “preferred to liquidate field commanders” or “kill them in investigation cells.”
Other officials and experts told the Moscow paper much the same. Mikhail Babich, currently deputy head of the Duma defense committee and formerly Chechen prime minister, said Magas has “serious operational information that will allow the special services” to find and arrest others (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article/2010/06/10/237035).
Moreover, Babich continued, “the appearance of one of the leaders of the militants in the dock can have a demoralizing influence on the remaining fighters.” And Babich’s Duma colleague, Vladimir Vasilyev, added that “it is a good thing that this chieftain was not destroyed when he was detained but rather taken alive.”
Meanwhile, Aleksey Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center put it most clearly: “One can only be pleased,” he told the paper, “that we are shifting in the North Caucasus from the strategy of ‘drown in the outhouse’ to ‘catch and condemn.’” That is important not only for fighting the militants, he said, but also for the development of Russian society as a whole.
However that may prove to be, the information Magas may be providing his captors is already being cited by Russian and Chechen officials as having helped them capture additional militants. It is unclear whether this is in fact the case or whether it too is a useful means of discrediting Magas and demoralizing the anti-Moscow underground.
But three things are clear. First, Medvedev’s support for “capturing and condemning” represents a major shift from the policies of his predecessor. Second, Medvedev’s approach does promise to yield some intelligence – many observers have been struck by Moscow’s earlier failure to try to take prisoners during major acts of violence.
And third, just as Putin’s policy of “drowning [militants] in the outhouse” has been both popular and counter-productive, so too Medvedev’s new commitment to the use of the legal system to combat militancy in the North Caucasus may create some new problems as well, given that many brought to trial in Russia have used such venues to advance their ideas.