Russia and the war

May 13, 2002

STUDDED WITH screws and ball bearings, the Victory Day bomb that obliterated a marine band in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan was noteworthy for the level of anguish it caused but not for the anguish itself. Anguish isn't news in that part of the world. Thursday's explosion was just another wrenching moment in the bitter story of the Caucasus.

The remote-controlled bomb killed 41 in all, at least 13 of them children who had turned out to watch a parade celebrating a long-ago triumph of Russian arms, the vanquishing of Nazi Germany. For the Russians, World War II lasted just a month shy of four years; the consecutive Chechen wars have already been going on for more than seven, with no end in sight.

Throughout the Caucasus, trouble and sorrow reign. Chechens, in fact, may not have been involved in the Dagestan atrocity. Authorities said they believe a local Islamic extremist was behind it. But Dagestan borders on Chechnya, and there's a free flow of murder and havoc in the region. Last month, a bomb went off at an outdoor market in the city of Vladikavkaz, in nearby North Ossetia; eight died there.

The Russians argue that this is one front in the war on terrorism, and however dispiriting that thought may be, of course they're right. A bomb at a holiday parade is a pure act of terror. But there's a larger point as well, which is that the war on terrorism is not a unified assault by the right-thinking nations of the world against the forces of evil, arrayed in a worldwide alliance. It's a diverse and difficult war, sometimes ugly, sometimes stupid, generally brutal. It's global and local at the same time, and it didn't begin on Sept. 11. It's mired, more often than not, in cruel and vengeful history -- in the Middle East, in Kashmir, and in the Caucasus.

President Vladimir Putin rose to power in Russia when the Chechen war re-ignited in 1999. A group of half-renegades from Chechnya tried to launch a rebellion in Dagestan, and Moscow's response was to put Chechnya in a vise and start cranking it shut. Russian forces destroyed most of what they found, stole the rest, killed tens of thousands. Mr. Putin's popularity soared among Russians, who longed for security and despised the Caucasian criminals and troublemakers who defied them.

The war served Mr. Putin's purpose, but now the war won't let him go. Russia can't afford to lose it, but in a strange way can't afford to win it, either.

Complete victory would require military resources that simply aren't there, and a level of devastation that would probably be beyond even Russian imagining. Complete victory at this point would mean killing every enemy Russia has created. A negotiated settlement would raise cries of betrayal from the armed forces -- and who would negotiate with terrorists?

There's the catch. The Chechens didn't use to be terrorists. They were fighting for the freedom of their republic. But a combination of Russian tactics and Islamic revival and bad leadership among the Chechens changed the character of the war. The Chechens reached out and found al-Qaida waiting for them. Today it is a war where ideas of freedom and jihad, murder and paradise are inextricably entwined.

And if Russia can't win it or lose it, what's to be expected? Death without end. War made permanent. It would be a cautionary lesson to others, if it weren't so connected to the rest of the world.

This is one face of the global struggle. On one level it is a clash between deadly Islamic extremism and a pitiless Russian state, and on another it's a street corner in Dagestan, where the brass instruments of a band lie strewn across the street, among the bodies of children who thought to cheer a parade.

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