Vienna, January 25 – The officials Dmitry Medvedev assembled in the wake of the explosion at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport and the behavior of other officials suggests, two of Russia’s leading specialists on the intelligence services suggest, that the Russian president is treating this outrage not so much as a terrorist act but rather as a natural disaster.
That does not mean that he and those reporting to him do not believe that what happened in Domodedovo was a terrorist act, Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan suggest in an article in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” but rather that the leadership is not acting in the ways one would expect it to if that is the case (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=10770).
And that in turn raises questions both about the nature of Moscow’s counter-terorrist strategy and perhaps even more fundamentally about the way in which Medvedev (and Putin) are making use of the intelligence services and even the way in which the powers that be are interacting with the population at times of tragedy.
As soon as Medvedev learned about the terrorist act at Domodedovo, the two Agentura.ru specialists say, the Russian president called three officials to meet with him: Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of the Investigation Committee, Yury Chaika, the prosecutor general, and Igor Levitin, the transportation minister.
Thus, the two analysts say, the president assembled “only those who are responsible for reacting to a terrorist action rather than those, like Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev and FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov who are charged with preventing terrorist actions. Nor were these two called to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Apparently both the president and the prime minister “considered it inappropriate to ask questions” about why Domodedovo had occurred. But Nurgaliyev and Bortnikov not only failed to appear before Medvedev and Putin but they also did not show up “in front of the television cameras, thereby avoiding the necessity of answering questions from journalists.”
According to Soldatov and Borogan, “the tactic chosen by the authorities can have only one explanation.” For the president and prime minister, the terrorist action is being “equated to a natural disaster where by definition there are not guilty parties but there is only a spontaneously arising tragic situation to which it is necessary to react appropriately.”
“In such circumstances,” they add, “what is needed are not questions but orders.”
This approach, Soldatov and Borogan note, “appeared long before the terrorist act at Domodedova” this week, adding that “at the very least, during the last two years, the special services have been equating terrorism to a phenomenon of nature,” given that Bortnikov has not reported to the media in 2009 or 2010 about the results of his agencies work in this area.
The two analysts recall that a year ago they wrote of their impression that “the refusal of Bortnikov from the longstanding practice of annual reports to the press meant the FSB no longer intends to hide that the special services report only to the Kremlin.” Now, they say it appears “the FSB and MVD do not consider themselves subordinate even to the Kremlin” and that Medvedev and Putin accept that.
But the reaction of other officials highlights an even bigger disconnect. In the past, for example, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov always visited the site of a terrorist act both to demonstrate that he was in charge and gave interviews to the media in order to underscore his ties to the population that was suffering.
“This old tradition of the 1990s died immediately after Medvedev replaced the mayor of the city,” Soldatov and Borogan say. “Sobyanin came to the site of the tragedy, that is, he fulfilled the functions of administration but he did not consider it necessary to meet with the press there.” He limited himself to “declarations before ‘his own’ television cameras.”
According to the two analysts, “it is characteristic that Bornikov and Sobyanin are both appointees of Medvedev and both with ease have rejected the practice of their predecessors, Patrushev and Luzhkov by refusing to appear before the press.” This new approach, Soldatov and Borogan say, suggests that they don’t feel “any degree of responsibility before the people.”
But that raises some serious issues, they point out. “Countering terrorists is not simply an area of administrative decisions of various degrees of effectiveness, the shortcomings of which can be covered in secrecy.” More to the point, no amount of secrecy can hide that Moscow now isn’t demanding that the force structures react to the threat in a timely fashion.
Since the announcement of a national counter-terrorism strategy in 2004 and 2006, “the chief priority is not to permit an attack of large groups of militants which would lead ot the loss of administrative control (that is, of political stability) in the region or country as a whole” rather than protecting the population.
The terrorists have changed tactics as a result, Soldatov and Borogan say, shifting to small groups, the use of suicide bombers, and attacking officials. That shift has allowed Medvedev to solemnly declare about “the completion of the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya,” but it has left Russia and Russians less well-protected against terror than they were.