Trials, Not Special Ops, Better Weapon Against Terrorists, Moscow Analyst Says


Reactions to the deadly bombing in the Moscow metro Monday have been extremely predictable. Vladimir Putin has called for an even harsher campaign against terrorists. Dmitry Medvedev has called for a similar campaign but with respect for law. And others have speculated about who is to blame and how the powers that be will exploit it.

If most government officials suggested that radicals from the North Caucasus were responsible, others pointed to foreign special services, opposition groups of various hues, or even the powers that be themselves who, whether they were behind it or not, will exploit the attack for a new crackdown against the opposition.

But Sergey Markedonov, one of Russia’s most thoughtful commentators on ethnic conflict in general, argues that Moscow will have greater success in combating the opponents it faces if it brings them to trial rather than engaging in a campaign of force that results in their deaths without the discrediting testimony a trial can provide (

In an essay posted online only a few hours after the explosions on the Moscow Metro, Markedonov says that it is a mistake to rush to judgment concerning who is responsible, falling into the familiar trap of many Russian analysts who view the North Caucasus with “a immanent (and permanent) presumption of guilt.”

That there is terrorism in that region, he continues, is undoubtedly the case, but “it is far from the only region” involved. In this and other cases, one cannot exclude that others may have been involved. That is what Spanish officials discovered in 2004 when their original suspicions that the Basques were behind the attack on the Madrid Metro turned out to be wrong.

“Only the lazy” don’t talk about terrorism now, Markedonov continues, but most of them do so as if this form of armed conflict began on September 11, a pattern that drives their interpretations of any subsequent event more than often is justified by the facts of the particular case involved.

That is a mistake, and it is one that can be corrected by examining a book, “Insurrection – the Name of the Third World War” (in Russian, “Myatezh – imya tretyei vsemirnoy’) published by Yevgeny Messner, an émigré Russian military theorist in Buenos Aires in 1960, a work ignored by the Soviets and the West but increasingly attended to by Russian analysts.

(Several of Messner’s works have been re-issued in Russia since 1991. An excerpt of the book in question is available at For a brief biography of Messner and a partial bibliography of his works published abroad, see

Messner, who in Markedonov’s words “turned up in exile after the fratricidal [Russian] civil war,” first developed the concept of “insurrection-war” (in Russian: “myatezhevoina’),” which typically without any credit has been expanded by American writers into a description of “fourth generation war.”

“According to Messner,” the Moscow commentator summarizes, “in a war of this type, ‘the combatants are not only forces and not so much forces as popular movements,” and the struggle is in the first case not for territory but for psychological advantage over one’s opponents.

In classical war, psychology plays a role, but Messner argued, “in the present day epoch of all-popular wars and popular fighting movements, psychological factors are the dominating ones.” Indeed, the émigré military theorist insisted, “insurrection-war is psychological war,” something that those fighting it must understand but often do not.

Messner “calls terrorist ‘soldiers’ a crypto-army,” that is a force which is directed not by a government or group of states but rather by “network structures or groups which may not even have continuing contacts with one another. And their target is not so much the bureaucrat or the state as the society” and its attitudes.

These crypto-soldiers have a number of advantages on their side, Messner insisted. They are prepared to die while visiting death on ordinary citizens, a kind of action that “shocks and generates hatred, phobias, suspiciousness and in the final analysis frustration. [And] a society which has become frustrated in this way is much easier to manipulate.”

In such wars, the émigré writer continued, “there are no front lines and the borders between enemy and friend are blurred. In such wars, yesterday’s terrorist may repent and become an executor of state policy, and the corrupted bureaucrat by his actions may push forward terrorist acts and also make possible the general de-legitimization of power.”

Markedonov draws three conclusions from this. First, he writes, “it is necessary to precisely recognize that in ‘a war of the fourth generation’ there cannot be any absolutely secure places,” a recognition that most leaders are unwilling to acknowledge because their populations are not prepared to tolerate that.

Second, to be successful, counter-terrorist strategies must be more complex than many state leaders assume. “Today is not 1945,” the Moscow analyst writes. “And for victory over the militants it is not necessary to convert Nalchik, Makhachkala or Nazran into Berlin.” Indeed, trying to do so is almost certainly going to be counterproductive.

“Let us ask ourselves the question,” Markedonov suggests, “which would be more effective, the simple ‘liquidation’ [of someone who had committed an outrage] or the arrest of a terrorist with his subsequent ‘repentance,’ cooperation with investigators, the publication of repentant memoirs and moral de-legitimation?”
“One such trial,” he continues, “would be more useful than several ‘special operations’” because it would cast a very different light on the fighters than the one they can count being directed their way if they are transformed into giants by the media or into martyrs by the actions of the security agencies.

And third, Markedonov goes on, again drawing on Messner’s argument, “the anti-terrorist struggle cannot be reduced to force measures alone.” Of course, force should be used against those who employ violence, but “the first order task must be ‘the conquest of souls,” not of territory.

In short, Messner and Markedonov are suggesting that “for victory over ‘crypto-armies’ of terrorists, one must know their goals, their moral values, their psychological trump cards, and their Achilles heel. Otherwise, it will be simply impossible to act on them” as the powers that be say they want to do.

But the argument the two make, Messner in his 50-year-old essay and Markedonov in a comment now, is unlikely to find many takers in Moscow at least today. The Russian people are justifiably outraged by the metro attack, and Vladimir Putin has boosted his standing at many points over the last decade by adopting a hard line, preferring special ops to trials.

And that points to more tragedies ahead, with those who say they want to defeat terrorism adopting exactly the strategy that will guarantee that it will not only continue but spread, leading to escalation on both sides and the deferral, perhaps for a very long time, of any chance for peace and the development of a free society there.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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