More detailed analysis by Russian authorities has led to the conclusion that foul play was the cause of one of the two Aug. 24 air crashes that killed 106 people. Logic dictates that the Kremlin would want to respond to the attack in the strongest way possible, but Moscow has very few options for striking back — none of them good.
Russian investigators disclosed Aug. 27 that they found traces of the explosive hexogen on board one of the two planes that crashed Aug. 24. Hexogen is the explosive used in the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings just before the beginning of the current Chechen war. Hexogen is more commonly referred to in the United States as RDX or cyclonite and is a key component in the explosives Semtex and C4. An Internet-posted announcement by a group identifying itself as the Islambouli Brigades said the attacks were carried out by five mujahideen on each plane as revenge for Russia's ongoing war in Chechnya. Sources in Russian law enforcement say no one has stepped forward to inquire about two passengers on the planes — one on each plane — who have Chechen last names, signifying that the "Islambouli Brigades" was indeed correct about at least two of its "mujahideen." Chechen militants have used female suicide bombers extensively in the past, most notably in the February 2004 Moscow subway bombings. Now that the Russians have confirmed they were the victims of a terrorist attack and now that a group — however questionable the legitimacy of its assertions — has claimed responsibility, the Russian people will expect their government to take action to contain and combat the threat. Logic dictates that Russia will want to make an all-out effort to prevent another attack from happening — similar to U.S. action immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. In reality, Moscow's actions will amount to a big zero. Unlike the United States, which largely had ignored the terrorist threat before September 2001, Russia already is doing everything imaginable to battle it. There already are some 80,000 military and Interior Ministry troops in the separatist province of Chechnya, and efforts to put pro-Moscow Chechens in charge of the security there has had — at best — limited success. Militant activity occasionally leaks out of Chechnya into troubled Dagestan and until-recently placid Ingushetia. Russia could attempt to tighten its security across the board, but again, aside from switching responsibility for airport security from the Transportation Ministry to the Interior Ministry — which President Vladimir Putin did the day after the twin crashes — there is not much more to be done. One of the few tacks Russia could take would be to crack down against organized crime more directly, but since corruption within Russian law enforcement is rife — precisely because of the organized crime problem — tightening already strangling internal security regulations and practices would possibly make Russia look only even more like a police state than the multi-party democracy it claims to be. There is also a presidential angle. Russia is now a one-man show politically and Putin does not want to appear weak either home or abroad. This has led to a delay in declaring terrorism the most likely cause of the disaster, and will similarly mute Russia's response. Just as it was after the Moscow theater crisis that resulted in the deaths of 102 civilians and the December 2003 suicide bombing in Grozny that killed 80, Russia's response probably will be limited. Putin will put on a brave face — and the country will continue the grinding war in Chechnya.