Much of the attention surrounding the Boston marathon bombing has understandably focused on the manhunt for the perpetrators, their motives, and the failure of law enforcement to stop them before they attacked. Now that the second terrorist has been captured alive, his trial will continue to capture headlines for months into the future.
Yet one person who ought to be held responsible for the mess remains at large and will likely never be punished: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He has made the obligatory rounds expected of him, condemning the attack in Boston as a “disgusting crime” and calling President Obama to offer his condolences and cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts. He will tell Russians that the attack in America proves he was right all along about the vile nature of Chechens, and tell Americans that they cannot interfere with Russian actions in Chechnya. In fact, Putin will say that the U.S. should support what they’re doing — especially since the local insurgency in Chechnya has only gotten worse in recent years.
Yet beneath it all Putin is the primary reason for Islamic extremism in Chechnya today.
As recently revealed in a new book by John Dunlop, back in the late 1990’s Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president and Putin’s patron, was in deep trouble. On top of his problems with alcoholism, Yeltsin was mired in political problems and corruption allegations that threatened to throw his party out of office and Yeltsin and his inner circle into jail. In order to turn things around, they needed to postpone the elections and give Putin — who as the former head of the domestic security agency, the FSB, and then newly appointed prime minister had a lot of power but little name recognition — a chance to shine in the spotlight and thus win the election, keeping them all out of prison.
They decided that the best way to accomplish both tasks was to destabilize the country and rally the people around the flag. As such, they helped orchestrate the invasion of Dagestan by Chechen extremists by having their tycoon allies pay such exorbitant ransoms for hostages that the extremists were able to support an army with it. They also ordered the FSB, the state intelligence service, to launch terrorist attacks against their own countrymen, resulting in the Moscow bombings of September 1999 that killed nearly 300 and injured 600 (Naturally there has been an investigation into these charges, but, oddly enough, anyone who gets too involved is mysteriously arrested, exiled or murdered). Both events were used as pretext to launch an invasion by Russia into Chechnya, sparking the Second Chechen War and an insurgency that has killed 50,000-75,000 people.
Through this war effort, Putin became Russia’s hero and his popularity soared as a result, guaranteeing his victory the following March as president. Chechnya was left in ruins and is mired in a toxic mix of tyranny, corruption, and a festering insurgency responsible for some of the worst terrorist attacks in recent years. While religion has been used for centuries to mobilize fighters against various Russian empires, the latest insurgency has abandoned the region’s traditional Sufism for the virulent Wahhabism that has plagued the world under Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
In all, Putin’s stated desire to bring an end to the violence is as false as his claims that Russia can handle the situation. He helped initiate the conflict that plagues us today, has stymied any effort to hold perpetrators accountable, and personally benefits from the conflict. Putin uses retaliation against terrorists to gin up public support so routinely that it makes even North Korea’s use of threatening nuclear war look prudent.
President George W. Bush once famously said that he looked Putin in the eye and was “able to get a sense of his soul.” In tackling the problems of Chechnya, President Barack Obama should be much more cautious, for time has shown that in Putin’s case there isn’t much of one there.