How the Kremlin Exploits Counterterrorism

    Ilan Berman

    Security, Eurasia

    Empirical data surrounding Russia’s counterterrorism policy casts real doubt on whether the Russian state is winning its version of the “war on terror.”

    Just how effective is the Kremlin’s counterterrorism strategy? Russia’s leaders have long extolled the proactive measures taken by the country’s assorted security services to keep its citizens safe from extremist elements, and periodic skirmishes between police and Islamic radicals continue to take place throughout the Federation. But the actual impact of Russia’s anti-terror efforts remains largely unverified.

    That’s the conclusion of a recent expose from Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last remaining independent newspapers. According to the study, while Russia’s numerous and overlapping security agencies “regularly report” on the effectiveness of the measures taken by their departments, “it is not possible to verify all this information for the most part.” That is because, “with rare exceptions,” the names of those who either attempt or actually commit terrorist acts are withheld from the public. Similarly, “with few exceptions, nothing is known about the trials of the defendants . . . or about the sentences passed.”

    The result is that the true state of Russia’s security environment is opaque—and the Kremlin’s depiction of it deeply unreliable. As the Novaya Gazeta study notes, between November 2015 and November 2017, Russia’s primary security service, the Federal Security Service (know as the FSB), made more than 3,500 public statements about terrorist attacks that it had successfully thwarted or extremist actors that it had apprehended. During that same period, however, just fourteen arrests and thirteen prosecutions of such culprits were carried out—a meager figure that raises serious questions about the veracity of the Kremlin’s claims.

    Yet the study’s findings are also a more fundamental challenge to the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin because they undermine the organizing principle behind its increasingly draconian control over the country.

    In recent years, Putin’s administration has made extensive efforts to centralize economic, political and military power, expanding authoritarianism and the power of the state in the process. Much of this has been done in the name of national security—and, specifically, in the service of counterterrorism and combating extremism.

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