Two Very Different Wars on Terrorism: How the Cold War Haunts Collaboration

Posted on February 3, 2014 by


On the 29th of December, at 12:40 Moscow Time, an explosion gutted the entrance to Volgograd’s central train station leaving eighteen dead and forty-four injured. The explosion was recorded on CCTV, the shockwave rocking the camera while those civilians visible scatter from the blast. The very next morning a trolleybus erupted in the Dzerzhinsky district, killing a further sixteen dead and leaving forty-one injured. The latest of many attacks in Russia’s recently turbulent past, they—like most others—failed to pierce international consciousness in such a way as, for example, the (lesser) Boston Marathon Bombings of April 2013. While the hashtag #prayforBoston became a global phenomenon (and still bears regular recital), even on the days of the bombings, tweets concerning Volgograd hardly transcended the Russian border[i].

This represents no substantial divergence from the norm, for while terrorist attacks on the West and its allies are neatly categorised as generic attacks on liberty itself, attacks on Russian soil take on a very different character. Immediate blame is attributed, in this case to (speculatively dead) Chechen Islamist, Doku Umarov; his motive: the recognition of the Caucasus Emirate as a state distinct from the Russian Federation. Comparatively, while responsibility for the September 11th attacks was rapidly attributed to Osama bin Laden (an invasion force sallied forth weeks later), few have read his “letter to the American people,” nor watched his 2004 Al-Jazeera tape in which his motives are clearly expounded. A plethora is offered, the most recurrent being: support for the state of Israel and its part-genocidal invasion of Lebanon, the United Nations sanctions against Iraq (recognised as having caused not less than 400,000 child deaths), and the supporting of various unsavoury regimes to maintain a steady flow of cheap materials.

That stumbling upon these well-published testimonies—upon which a fourteen-year war was predicated—evokes a similar feeling to unearthing some forgotten and long-sought document is a failure of not only the media, but the system it inhabits. The effect of obfuscating why the West was attacked, while paying due attention when such terrors befall others, rids us of the onus to address the grievances of the attacker.

This is not transnational victim-blaming cum hindsight. That Russians know of Chechen aims and the 2007 declaration of the Emirate has not muted President Putin’s resolve—vowing soon after the Volgograd attacks to “strongly and decisively continue the battle against terrorists until their total annihilation.” What it might mean, however, is a retraction of the public support (call it acquiescence) to stumble blindly into wars that only aggravate the conflict. Such a blissful state must be considered a new phenomenon on both sides of the ‘war on terror,’ for it was the second, Islamised Chechen War—the catastrophic siege of Grozny often likened to America’s own in Iraq’s Fallujah—that laid a firm basis for all subsequent attacks, including those in Volgograd and the ‘present’ promised Putin “for the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.”

While the United States promised to stand “in solidarity with the Russian people against terrorism,” few Russians hold their breath. It was with disbelief that the Kremlin witnessed the toppling of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and now the attempt on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad—three regimes that “stood in opposition to all types of Islamic influence,” toppled in the American War on Terror. It is the fear of an Islamised Greater Middle East that drives Russian foreign policy in the region. Though Chechnya displays all signs of stability and recovery (a distinct difference to the recently recaptured Fallujah) there is little doubt the rise of such an entity would disturb the delicate equilibrium—the bombings in Volgograd are testament to the readiness of the militants, should such an entity arise. In some respects, when it comes to the ‘global war on terror,’ Russia feels hard-done-by, for the militants it fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s—those who would follow the Soviet forces home—were, in part, trained by the United States. Just as the Soviet Union had (to a much smaller extent) armed the North Vietnamese against the Americans, the CIA provided training and arms (some of them state-of-the-art) to the Mujahedeen, in the words of National Security Advisor of the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to give “the USSR its Vietnam war.”

That the repercussions of this would long outlast the Cold War was a hallmark of the blinkered strategies of the era. And though cooperation will always be difficult between two former enemies (indeed, some say a new Cold War’s already brewing), the classification of terrorist attacks on equal terms is a compulsory first step.

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[i] Волгограде = Volgograd.