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Moscow Times
October 19, 2004
Nukes Will Not Be Used
By Pavel Felgenhauer

Following the Beslan tragedy last month, Russian officials began threatening to attack Chechen rebel sympathizers and representatives abroad. Last week, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was attending a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Poiana Brasov, Romania, said that Russia would launch pre-emptive strikes against terrorists worldwide, but would stop short of using nuclear weapons.

Hours later, the first "pre-emptive strike" occurred in London. The homes of exiled Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev and former Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko were attacked with Molotov cocktails. Zakayev is the chief representative of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov in the West. Litvinenko has in the past accused the FSB of carrying out the 1999 bombings of Moscow apartment buildings in order to create a pretext for invading Chechnya and of plotting to kill Boris Berezovsky. Zakayev, Litvinenko and Berezovsky have been granted political asylum in Britain.

The arson attacks damaged property, but no one was injured and no arrests have been made. Boris Labusov, the official spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, ruled out any SVR involvement. Technically, Labusov may be telling the truth, but the SVR is not the only branch of Russia's intelligence services operating abroad. In Qatar, two officers of the General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, were convicted for a car bombing in February that killed former Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.

The Kremlin never admitted it was behind the Qatar attack, but in Moscow the incident was hotly discussed within the intelligence community. A number of GRU officers, both active and retired, told me about the indignation within the service about the mishandled assassination and how the SVR botched its part of the job.

In the Soviet era, the SVR -- then part of the KGB -- handled covert political assassinations abroad. That know-how has now been lost. GRU special forces were trained to assassinate Western leaders in the event of a war with NATO in Europe. The only aim of such an operation would have been to eliminate the target. Misleading investigators after the fact would not be a priority. My sources in the GRU insist that their job -- the actual assassination -- was done well, but that the SVR failed to evacuate the agents as planned.

In Russia today, as in the Soviet Union, the activities of most government agencies are a state secret. No Freedom of Information Act allows the public to demand access to government files. But when everything is classified, it's impossible to tell the important secrets from the trivial ones. And in Russia today, there is a risk that almost any secret could be leaked.

Immediately after the Beslan tragedy, the security services put together an 11-point plan for Chechnya. It was sent to President Vladimir Putin. Along the way, the draft was leaked and published, a common way to build support for proposals that the bureaucracy is likely to reject -- in this case, increasing anti-terrorist cooperation with Israel. Following its publication, the plan was adopted by the Kremlin.

Point six of the draft reads as follows: "The SVR's stations in Western Europe should constantly monitor Berezovsky's actions, because he is not only the brains behind the anti-Putin opposition, but also has close contacts with Chechen rebels and is behind all recent major terrorist attacks in Russia."

Point seven declares: "Despite the failed final phase of the operation to kill Yandarbiyev, the practice of eliminating Chechen separatist leaders and the emissaries of Maskhadov should continue."

Labusov ruled out the possibility of Russian involvement in the London arson attacks, suggesting that "relatives or friends" of victims in the Beslan hostage-taking might have carried them out. That's an interesting twist. During the murder trial in Qatar, the Russian side was startled to learn that the assassins could have been acquitted according to Muslim legal tradition that allows acts of personal revenge, if it could have been proven that the agents or their relatives had suffered at the hands of Chechen rebels.

The oversight of sending assassins to Qatar who had no motive for revenge was much discussed in the Moscow intelligence community. From now on, it seems attacks on Putin's political opponents will be connected with Beslan or other terrorist outrages. But nuclear weapons will not be used.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.