Among soldiers and other hired gunmen, it is said that the bullet always tell the truth. It’s the triggerman’s way of passing moral responsibility for his deed, and his good or ill fortune, from the trigger to the target.
In interpreting a national shock like this month’s killings at Beslan, in the Northern Ossetian Republic, many contradictory truths have been claimed, some of them ripped almost literally from the corpses. But it is the single biggest mistake of most of these interpretations, foreign and Russian alike, to predict that the Beslan events will be a turning-point for Russia; that the truth-talking bullets that took so many lives will, somehow or other, change Russian politics in a decisive fashion.
Putin’s strength. The many Russians, and their Anglo-American patrons, who were already sharp critics of President Vladimir Putin, can’t avoid expressing the hope that the mismanagement of the Chechen war, and of the new violence in the Caucasus, will expose Putin’s weakness, and lead to his downfall. In fact, Putin has done the unprecedented thing of admitting what none of his predecessors has ever conceded – and thereby gained strength in popular, as well as elite support. If the Russian state is as weak as Putin admitted, and if the weak get exploited, as he warned and we all know, then who is there left standing to defend that state from its enemies, if not the President? Of course, Putin has a problem he hasn’t quite acknowledged, although his actions during and after the Beslan crisis demonstrate what he means. After almost five years in command, Putin has found not one spokesman who can be trusted to address the media, the people, or his own chain of command -except himself. This has awkward corollaries. The prime minister can’t open his mouth on a subject of national policy. Down the military chain of command, officers are reluctant to issue orders, or take the initiative, for fear of being countermanded, or sold out, by their superiors. They fear reporting intelligence assessments if they risk contradicting the vested interests of these who lie between them and the President. Putin himself trusts just five people to help him run the country. This six are too few. Little wonder that crises are difficult to anticipate, and slow to resolvne. But the alternatives to Putin are not simply worse. They are what brought the state to its knees in the first place.
Cockpit warfare. Several months ago, Beslan was chosen by those who directed the terrorist gang, not because it was close to an airport for a getaway; nor because the regional police were susceptible to bribes, nor because the school was wide open to attack. Those vulnerabilities are everywhere in evidence, all over Russia. Beslan was picked, because it is a cockpit for ethnic conflict between the tribes, clans, religions, and national loyalties of the Caucasus. And, as it was in Ottoman, British; Empire, Crimean War, and Hitler’s days, the Caucasus is the most vulnerable of Russia’s frontiers. In this respect, Beslan was for the planners of the operation what Lebanon was in the 1970s; Nicaragua in the 1980s; Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Set off a detonator in Beslan, it was thought, and the explosion would tear open such a hole in Russia’s under-belly, it would bleed to death, and outside powers gain the advantage, just as happened in the other cockpits. Putin made clear from his first speech after the freeing of the hostages that he understood this. Much of the interpretation of who the terrorists were, where they came from, who commanded them, and what they wanted, if anything, is beside the point that they were intent on triggering war in Beslan, not on negotiating Russian withdrawal from Chechnya, let alone an exit for themselves. Credible negotiators like Leonid Roshal, the Russian pediatrician, and Ruslan Aushev, the ex-president of Ingushetia – neither with a public axe to grind against Putin or the Chechen resistance — have said they doubted there was any exit for negotiation. The reported killings of three of the terrorists by their leader suggest the same thing. That the violence was inevitable doesn’t excuse the faults of the Ossetian security forces, or the federal commanders. But admitting those, and trying to rectify them in future, are only a small part of the cockpit war strategy Putin must now pursue.
The second front. For more than a year, Putin and his small band have been waging war on the other front in which they judged Russia was under direct attack, and against the other gang of bandits that has been staging repeated smash and grab raids, the accumulated value of which dwarfs the country’s (record-high) international reserves. The second front is the war to save Russia’s natural resource wealth from the Russian oligarchs, the half-dozen or so men, who began their operations against the state at the same time as the Chechen secession; with the same support from Washington and London; but with arguablt much greater firepower to destroy Russia. Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky have been defeated; Oleg Deripaska, Vladimir Potanin, Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Fridman, Viktor Vekselberg, Anatoly Chubais, and some others remain. It is repugnant to compare the value of their thieving against the value of the lives lost in Beslan. It is enough to note that, from the start of the campaign against Khodorkovsky’s attempt to sell the Yukos oil company to the United States, none of theimedia voices, belatedly and reluctantly aroused today on behalf of the children of Beslan and Chechnya, has spoken in defense of Putin’s campaign against the oligarchs. Nor was there any support for Putin from his own chief of staff, Prime Minister and cabinet, regional governors, the State Duma, or the so-called parties then campaigning for the parliamentary election. Putin’s second-front campaign has had to be fought by the same small band, with many of the same problems of command and control visible at Beslan. Clumsy but successful nonetheless, Putin’s war against the oligarchs should now lead on to new targets, especially as very large, fresh sums of money must now be raised by the Kremlin to fund the cockpit war in the Caucasus. Should there be any doubtjabout his priorities, Putin will shortly explain why the billion-dolliar cash-out transactions attempted by the oligarchs take the country hostage just as surely as the Chechen secessionists and the Beslan gang. The corollary will be a renewal of the campaign to retrieve the wealth taken by the oligarchs, in order to fufid the bounties now required on the military front, and in the domestic economy of Chechnya.
The fourth column. Never has so much ill-gotten money been spent on a media campaign to make the breakup and asset-stripping of Russia look democratic and desirable, and the fight-back look Stalinist and indefensible. A newspaper editor who claims to have been fired after clashing over Beslan reportage with the oligarch who is his proprietor, and a pro-secession reporter whose claim to have been poisoned by Kremlin agents lacks the rudimentary corroboration required by her profession, have been treated in the western media as the only honest heroes to have emerged from the coverage of the Beslan affair. Putin’s public reminder that press lords like Rupert Murdoch do not make a free press outside Russia is a polite way of saying that the Russian media perform no worse, no better, and that Putin himself inherited this from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. That the oligarchs he defeated fought with media weapons has made inevitable that the beaten media should be keen on revenge. It is a commonplace of the journalism profession to acknowledge that, in war, truth is the first casualty. For the Russian and foreign media to blame the casualties of Beslan on Putin is just another bullet, just another casualty, in the war for Russia that cannot be negotiated to a peaceful end any time soon.