People lay flowers on the roadside in front of the burnt-out Crocus City Hall following a deadly attack on the concert venue on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia.

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Russia's poor governance makes it vulnerable to terrorism

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Photo Credit: REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

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The recent terrorist attack at a rock concert on the outskirts of Moscow was the deadliest such episode in Russia since the Beslan school massacre in 2004, which came only two years after the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, giving Russia an awful distinction. Among the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five members, Russia has been a prime target for mass casualty (10 deaths or more) terrorist attacks, ranking first in overall attacks and second in fatalities since 2000, behind the United States, where over 90 percent of such fatalities occurred on September 11, 2001.[1]

The reasons for this record are multiple, ranging from the legacies of the breakup of the Soviet Union to Russia’s involvement in foreign wars in its near (and often Muslim) periphery. But another contributing factor is Russia’s reliance on oil and gas wealth, which has shaped its security apparatus, encouraging it to build a well-funded, large conventional military and internal security apparatus to quash domestic political opposition, while inhibiting the development of the bureaucratic and administrative capabilities that are more important for deterring and preventing terrorist attacks.

Information on the attack and the attackers is still scant. As of March 26, 137 had died in the assault, including three children. The Islamic State, a transnational armed group and terrorist network seeking to establish a Salafi Muslim caliphate across the Muslim world, has claimed credit.

The conventional wisdom is that Russia has evolved into an authoritarian police state determined to punish internal dissent. But available evidence points to a significant breakdown in Russian domestic intelligence and post-attack response. Even as the United States is supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, US officials had warned their Russian counterparts—and US citizens in Russia—about an imminent threat of attack in or around Moscow targeting public gatherings and specifically mentioning concerts.

So did Canada and the United Kingdom. These warnings apparently went unheeded, and instead were harshly criticized by Russian president Vladimir Putin. Special police units reportedly took over an hour to arrive at the scene despite it being just under 14 miles from the Kremlin. The alleged attackers were able to travel more than 200 miles before being apprehended despite never changing getaway vehicles.

Mass casualty (≥ 10 deaths) terrorist attacks, UN Security Council Permanent Five Members, 2000–2020
Country Attacks Casualties
China 22 640
France 5 226
Russia 62 1,766
United Kingdom 4 75
United States 15 3,239
Source: Author’s calculations based on the Global Terrorism Database. 

Terrorism has long been viewed as a “weapon of the weak,” employed when dissidents lack the firepower and personnel to challenge governments on the conventional battlefield. According to this logic, stronger, more capable states should experience more attacks on civilians because dissidents know direct military confrontation will be a losing proposition. They instead focus on soft targets, like schools and theaters, rather than hardened military targets or protected infrastructure. And when they do strike hard targets, they tend to use suicide terrorism: If dissidents cannot reasonably hope to survive the attacks or evade capture, they might as well use tactics that massively increase lethality per attacker.

My research with Joseph Young at American University, however, shows that states can be capable in different ways, and these differences matter for how many terrorist attacks they are likely to experience. Militarily, two states may be (near) peers but experience vastly different levels of terrorism. The missing ingredient is bureaucratic and administrative capacity, or how well the government collects, manages, and disseminates information about potential security threats (among other things).

A strong military may be useful for taking and holding territory and winning conventional battles, but it is not as useful for identifying and interdicting attackers moving among the civilian population. As James Fearon and David Laitin note in their landmark study on civil war, violent dissidents tend to flourish in situations where the state is “organizationally inept, corrupt, politically inept, and poorly informed about goings-on at the local level.” Military capacity may incentivize terrorist tactics because it makes direct confrontation relatively more costly, but bureaucratic/administrative capacity should hamper the ability of terrorist groups to mobilize and conduct attacks. Counteracting domestic terrorist groups is less about conventional military power and more about tracking the movement of individuals and money and collecting—and more importantly, assimilating and acting on—human and signals intelligence.

Many countries, like the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, are capable both militarily and bureaucratically/administratively. But there are many that are not—including, in a comparative sense, Russia. Russia is a nuclear power with a large and technologically sophisticated military that routinely is among the top five countries in military spending. It also has the fourth largest standing military, behind much more populous China, India, and the United States.

As a dictatorship that ruthlessly pursues its foreign and domestic enemies, Russia also is believed to possess the ability to use espionage, infiltration, hacking, blackmail, assassination, and other methods to quash internal dissent. But its bureaucratic and administrative capacity in nonsecurity areas is much lower than that of other major powers. Russia ranked in the 26th percentile globally on the World Governance Indicators’ government effectiveness indicator in 2022[2], which captures perceptions of “quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, [and] the quality of policy formulation and implementation.” This puts it well behind the other permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5): China (68th) and France, the United States, and the United Kingdom (all in the mid-80s).

By a large margin, Russia has experienced the most mass casualty terrorist attacks of the P5 members since 2000. Russia is in a more vulnerable situation because it has a large, geographically concentrated, and historically marginalized, Muslim minority group in its territory. But China—as human rights conditions in Xinjiang illustrate—faces similar challenges and has proven capable of creating a surveillance state in Xinjiang and limiting attacks. China’s response to terrorist attacks has been to create the type of totalitarian police state that Russia may desire but seemingly has not been able to establish or invest in creating.

Our results from more structured quantitative analysis are consistent with this pattern: Countries with larger, more technologically sophisticated militaries do experience more terrorist attacks, but once military capacity (and a host of other factors like population, regime type, etc.) are accounted for, more bureaucratically and administratively capable states experience fewer. A one standard deviation increase in bureaucratic capacity from the mean is associated with a diminution in the frequency of terrorist attacks by roughly 30 percent. A similar increase in military capacity is associated with a nearly 60 percent increase in attack frequency. Russia is by far the least bureaucratically and administratively capable state in the P5.

Russia’s oil wealth affects its attractiveness as a target for terror in three ways. First, in spite of Western sanctions, oil sales generate more resources to invest in its military, inviting dissidents to use terror in the face of a militarily superior foe. The other two effects are less obvious but perhaps more pernicious: Oil wealth impedes the development of bureaucratic capacity, in part because oil and natural gas rents also lessen pressure on the state to organize itself to efficiently monitor and tax the economy.

More effective bureaucracies tend to have better communication across agencies, facilitating the timely transmission of mission-critical information. Law enforcement and security officials are more insulated from political pressure—both from within the regime and without—allowing them to conduct more thorough investigations and follow the evidence. In general, the security apparatus conducts itself more professionally, including with respect to the treatment of suspects. The suspects in the recent concert hall attack appeared in court visibly beaten and tortured, a means of extracting confessions that is known to produce false positives. Brute force policing and militarized tactics may be useful for deterring pro-democracy and anti-war protesters, who count on mobilizing publicly and in large numbers to affect change, but these same tactics are of little use against terrorist cells that operate in the shadows—and indeed may invite more terror by provoking dissidents to respond violently in the face of significant government repression. Fundamentally, the Russian security apparatus is designed primarily to further Putin’s foreign policy ambitions and prevent popular uprisings. It is not oriented as much around public safety.

Russia’s oil and gas wealth and security priorities help us better understand the regime’s bellicose foreign policy, its ability to sustain the Ukraine war effort in spite of Western sanctions, and the durability of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly personalistic rule. Sadly, they may also help to explain why 137 concert goers lost their lives on March 22.

Notes

1. Author’s calculations based on the Global Terrorism Database.

2. The year for which most recent data are available.

Data Disclosure

This publication does not include a replication package.

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