History Lessons

In the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings, most of the commentary in Western media has focused on the likelihood that the explosions were the work of forces controlled by Doku Umarov and his “Caucasus Emirate”. In the Interpreter magazine, Andrew Bowen writes that

it is still a safe bet that the bombings can be attributed to the Caucasus Emirate, Russia’s homegrown Islamist insurgency. With that, and the upcoming Olympic Games, in mind, we can analyze the threat and potential for further attacks in the region and in Sochi by attempting to understand who the terrorists are and what they are capable of

and he says that

Rightly, the Russian authorities consider the threat as high enough to warrant the impressive security efforts.

Nearly all of the commentators persist in viewing the recent bombings and their social and political context from a Western perspective. Although the Caucasus Emirate is said to be “homegrown”, it is regarded in much the same light as Al Qaeda, while the Russian “authorities” (by which are meant counter terrorist and counter intelligence forces) and their efforts to control the situation are seen as equivalents to security and intelligence services in the West. In other words, the Volgograd bombings are viewed essentially in essentially the same light as terrorist attacks in the West, and the perpetrators are considered to be the equivalent of Islamist groups in London, Madrid or other Western capitals.

The analyses by observers like Andrew Bowen, Mark Galeotti and others tend to focus heavily on listings of Russia’s security preparations for the Olympics, together with a rundown of the assumed structure of the Islamist cells in Dagestan and Ingushetia. with much emphasis on “suicide bombers” and their “psychological preparation”. Very many such analyses look ahead to the Sochi Olympics, and link the atrocities to a desire by the Islamists to disrupt the Games. What is almost entirely missing from these articles is any attempt to set the recent events in a historical perspective, and particularly in the context of the long and shadowy relationship between the growth of Islamism in the North Caucasus and the activities of Russia’s security services. Although Bowen mentions “the gradual transformation of a Chechen nationalist/independence inspired resistance to a more regional Islamist insurgency”, he does not follow this up with a consideration of why the transformation took place, or of the agencies, including the Russian state authorities, that helped to make it possible. In particular, he fails to set the recent bombings in the historical context of other, similar bombings in the past, some of which were attributed by Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya to special operations by Russian secret services.

This lack of historical analysis and awareness is all the more striking as some of the commentators, like Galeotti, have been researching Russian history and security issues since at least the late 1980s.

The narrative of “suicide bombings” to “disrupt the Olympics” makes good headlines for Western media, but it does not do a great deal to help our understanding of events that go far beyond Sochi and may have much wider repercussions for global politics as a whole. In the context of Volgograd the Syrian conflict, and Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad, is one area that deserves much closer scrutiny. It’s time that Western defence correspondents and analysts broadened their approach to such events to include some historical depth, a consciousness of the details of the Chechen conflict, and the story of Chechen independence, for it is there that the roots of the present troubles can be found. In Russia’s brutal and mindless suppression of dissent in the North Caucasus, and its attempts to destroy it by every possible means, whether it be military force, propaganda, or subversion, lies the answer to the questions many are raising now.   

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