The Flipside of September 11, 2001
№4 2008 October/December

Russia’s operation to enforce peace and its five-day war with
Georgia took place just before the seventh anniversary of the start
of the war on terror. The war has lasted for as long as World War
II and many analysts have predicted it will never end. But the
five-day war interrupted the expected course of events. It is not
so much about a war on terror now as about a new Cold War. All the
factors are in place for events to develop in such a way.


It would seem at first glance that there are more differences
than similarities between what happened in the United States on
September 11, 2001 and in South Ossetia on August 8, 2008. Some
think these events should not be compared at all. In the first case
we have a sudden attack by an unidentified source (later called
Al-Qaeda) using unconventional tools of aggression. In the second,
there was an expected attack by the regular army of a specific
country on a self-proclaimed republic, which de-jure is part of
this state.

However, the similarities outnumber the differences.

First, both atrocities might be branded as
crimes against humanity, because they deliberately targeted
civilians and resulted in a tragic death toll;

Second, they both hit the world’s largest
countries that have nuclear arsenals. Al-Qaeda leaders were aware
that they had issued an order to destroy American citizens on the
territory of the United States, while Georgian leaders realized
that, while firing their salvo systems at Tskhinvali, they were
killing citizens of the Russian Federation (who make up an
overwhelming majority) in a territory adjacent to Russia;

Third, both the United States in 2001 and
Russia in 2008 mustered similar resolve to stave off the attacks
and took measures to prevent further attacks.

The difference in the legal aspect of the retaliation is
obvious. The strike against the armed formations of the Taliban in
Afghanistan was sanctioned by the UN Security Council, while
Russia, in rebuffing Georgia, was guided by the peacekeeping
mandate agreed on in the Dagomys Treaty and the UN Charter that
provides for protecting citizens from aggression.

But the main difference was that Al-Qaeda’s attack on the United
States led to the establishment of a broad international coalition
of countries with various technological levels and geopolitical
interests. In effect, a concept of an international war against
terrorism was shaped, where Russia played and continues to play an
important role.

Georgia’s attack on Tskhinvali and Russia’s retaliatory
operation to force Georgia to peace sidelined Moscow politically
and has put into question Russia’s further participation in the
antiterrorist coalition.

In other words, August 8, 2008 became September 11, 2001 in
reverse for Russia. Both events were not ordinary episodes in
history. They have influenced the global reconfiguration of world
politics in the 21st century.

These events concern many things: international law, which has a
number of mutually exclusive norms; the bloc system of countries;
patterns of action in conflict areas; and forecast estimates of how
a situation will develop. For example, many Western analysts doubt
the legitimacy of “promoting” (from the point of view of potential
danger) the fanatical anarchists behind the attack on the twin
towers to the rank of nuclear power. Some crimes that are normally
handled by the police have turned into “military actions”: it might
seem sometimes that the reason behind this is to justify excessive
budget spending and keep the police down.


September 11, 2001 helped the U.S. to legitimize a new type of
military action earlier tested in Grenada, Panama, Somalia and the
former Yugoslavia. These were military campaigns in territories of
sovereign states without a declaration of war, but with the use of
bombing raids that did not necessarily target military facilities.
These kinds of operations became an informal concept in the 1990s
known as the doctrine of “humanitarian interventions.” NATO’s war
against Yugoslavia in 1999 can serve as an example.

The eroding criteria of the use of force was caused by the
collapse of the global geopolitical balance of forces, but the
ambiguity of many provisions of international law on the main issue
– of war and peace – was also an important reason. This ambiguity
and contradictions in the UN Charter, and a number of pacts and
declarations, were rooted in the so-called “trap of self-defense,”
or, to be more specific, “preventive self-defense.” It established
the groundwork for the “war against terrorism,” justifying the wars
in Afghanistan and Iraq, though neither Kabul nor Baghdad had ever
challenged the United States through direct aggression.

In the first case, the start of preventive military action came
on the strength of intelligence that Al-Qaeda had been planning an
attack on the U.S. from Afghanistan. But the same argument could
also justify strikes at Pakistan, a close U.S. ally, where
Al-Qaeda’s influence was as strong as in Afghanistan. In Iraq, “the
preventive war” was not even based on intelligence, as former CIA
chief George Tenet recently revealed in his book, but on the basis
of dubious materials falsified by Dick Cheney’s milieu. The Iraq
war has resulted in 300,000 to 650,000 deaths, most of which were
civilians, according to estimates by various independent U.S. and
European organizations.

The contradiction between the self-determination of nations and
territorial integrity of the states became another “trap” for
international law. An arbitrary interpretation of these principles
to meet certain geopolitical interests, together with a biased view
of events, led to the illegal recognition of Kosovo by the United
States and a number of other states.

August 8, 2008 brought such changes to the international scene
that the “catch of self-defense” and “the catch of
self-determination” became a trap for U.S. politics in the
Caucasus. Moscow, in effect, snatched the “hot potato” from
Washington in a big political game. Moreover, its reasons for
fighting Georgia are real, unlike those of the United States.
Russia reacted to the attack on its peacekeepers and ethnic
cleansings against South Ossetians, with Abkhazians standing next
in line. Most South Ossetians and Abkhazians are Russian

After August 8, Moscow used another legal ambiguity of the UN
Charter – “the catch of peacekeeping,” which enabled it to
implement any preventive military action on the strength of a
regional peacekeeping mandate, issued per agreement between two or
more states. The U.S. had no such mandate for any of its three
designated wars.

The reality that developed after September 11, 2001 and August
8, 2008 is such that the “catches” of self-defense,
self-determination and peacekeeping in ambiguous UN documents can
be used to justify war against sovereign states. This requires
military might and political will. The United States demonstrated
this capability after September 11, and Russia — after August

International rules on war and peace are unlikely to change, and
the existing ambiguities will persist. The United Nations will
continue to exist because the world needs norms, no matter how
The international law of the 21st century will remain the law of
the strong, giving legitimacy to actions and means, and marking the
right and the wrong. But after the August events, the phrase “war
against terrorism” is ceasing to be the only “advertisement” of the
use of force aimed at attaining political objectives.


The Kremlin’s show of political will shocked the West, long used
to a docile Moscow. Many wanted to slap sanctions on Russia and
isolate it. But even the most aggressive politicians and analysts
admit the West’s limited ability to exert a real influence.

The threats to Russia’s development are not external; they
largely come from within. The peak of oil production has passed,
and starting in 2010, the trend toward a recession will gain
momentum. Of the country’s 14 largest oil fields, seven have been
depleted by more than 50 percent.

Production at the four largest gas fields has been decreasing as
well, but not because Russia is running out of oil and gas
reserves. Rampant corruption and organized crime play a large role
in the ineffective use of resources and the underfunding of new

A national anti-corruption plan adopted just before the
Russia-Georgia conflict uses a certain pattern to limit the
lawlessness of officials. But it conspicuously lacks measures to
fight the mafia. Corruption is just a gangland tool for deriving
super profit, including in the fuel and energy sector.

A law-enforcement strategy to fight international organized
crime that the United States adopted in April 2008 gives priority
to fighting the mafia in the energy sector. It designated Russian
organized criminal groups as the main source of danger.

Incidentally, it is this tool of putting pressure on Russia that
the West is likely to use most actively. Threats were issued hard
on heels of Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and
On August 26, 2008, The Washington Post wrote in an editorial:
“There is certainly no reason why U.S. and international agencies
should not vigorously pursue the numerous allegations of corrupt
practices by Russian firms. If Kremlin-connected companies violate
Georgian or international law through their actions in the occupied
provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, their assets – gas
stations in the United States, for example – could be subject to

Britain’s Financial Times called for retaliation against Russia
by its own methods: put pressure on Russian business and adopt
discriminatory measures against it. On August 27, The Washington
Post published an unprecedented article titled “Target the Kremlin
Pocketbooks” by David B. Rivkin Jr., a former Justice Department
official, and Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky, a lawyer. They suggested
instigating “a law enforcement campaign targeting Russia’s ruling
elites.” “If enough pain is inflicted on them, they will demand
foreign policy changes and even seek to replace Putin,” the authors

According to their recommendations, “whenever they have
jurisdiction to do so – which should be often – U.S. and EU
regulators should examine the business transactions of people close
to Putin’s regime for money laundering or for securities, tax and
other economic irregularities. Asset tracing and long statutes of
limitation should enable Western authorities to examine years’
worth of business activities. The U.S. Justice Department should
aggressively prosecute any instances of Kremlin-connected market
manipulation, fraud, tax evasion and money laundering that fall
within its reach.”

“Subpoenas, indictments, asset forfeitures, judgments and travel
restrictions will hit where even the most callous bullies feel
pain: squarely in the wallet[…] Pursuing the oligarchs through
the courts would not require the United States or Europe to take a
single action ‘against Russia.’ U.S. and allied governments could
note that these activities are consistent with overarching Western
efforts to curb public and private corruption. Meanwhile,
publicizing Western investigations into illegal activity by Moscow
businessmen and returning the ill-gotten gains to the Russian
people should please even the fiercest Russian nationalists.”

The recommendations are actually an undisguised interference in
Russia’s internal affairs, presented as a fight against global
corruption and international organized crime. These are the methods
of the “new Cold War.” Earlier, such directives were confidential,
but now they are freely published.

The West began testing such methods of influencing Russia
several months before the five-day war. For example, the U.S.
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held hearings on energy
resources in the spirit of the anti-mafia cold war against Russia
on June 12, 2008. Zbigniew Brzezinski was one of the experts who
testified and their testimony ran along the same lines as the
Washington Post article. British courts adopted as tough a tone
when questioning Russian oligarchs in economic, civil and legal
disputes in July 2008.

This kind of pressure might prove much more effective than the
classic “gunboat diplomacy.” The U.S. and NATO do not have the
clout now to start a military confrontation with Russia – there are
too many problems everywhere. The “new Cold War” with Russia is
likely to become an “anti-mafia” one.

Russia must be ready and try to stay a step ahead. Its further
development, regardless of the model it chooses – militarized or
very liberal – is impossible without a powerful anti-corruption
project. It should not fear the West starting an anti-mafia cold
war, instead Russia must use this as the reason for its operations
“Clean Hands” and “Anti-mafia.” An emphasis must be placed on the
return of stolen assets to Russia and the arrest of multi-millions
in assets purchased abroad. In that event, the U.S.-conceived
operation “soft power” will play not against Russia, but to its
benefit, contributing to its purification and development.

There are no easy solutions in the oncoming anti-mafia war. It
is important not to get trapped by economic initiatives. It would
be unwise to assume that all of the 300,000 Russians who own huge
amounts of property in London are corrupt or belong to mafia clans.
But the checks into the legality of the income – which must involve
Western fiscal and law-enforcement bodies – must be sweeping. The
mechanisms were worked out long ago and are part of the toolbox of
Russia’s financial watchdog, Rosfinmonitoring, operating through
the Egmont intelligence network, and Interpol’s Russian Bureau.

For example, one might compare the lists of big Russian property
owners abroad, compiled by Western tax authorities, with the lists
of suspects in criminal cases concerning corruption and economic
crimes. Or Russia could compile lists of suspects in these cases
and make international requests to search the bank accounts and
property of each suspect.

The mechanisms of arresting accounts and property and their
subsequent forfeiture, with the view of repatriating stolen and
legalized funds, are spelled out in the United Nations Convention
Against Transnational Organized Crime (2000) and the United Nations
Convention Against Corruption (2003). Russia ratified these
international agreements and can use them in full measure. If the
work of Russian law enforcement agencies and secret services is
vigorous and coordinated, it might be possible to repatriate
tremendous amounts of funds, while making the West an active
participant in the process and not giving it a reason to call
Russia a criminal country.

There is no doubt that the anti-mafia cold war will see a
“battle of lists.” The West will start palming off to Russia the
names of those who it believes make up the circle of “Putin’s
friends.” Russia meanwhile will be demanding information about
other persons. My own working experience at Interpol’s Russian
Bureau shows that those who stole Russian funds and legalized them
abroad are not known to the public at large. They never give
interviews and do not have their faces smiling at us from glossy
magazine covers.

Fighting the mafia is a fine art. We should not allow bona fide
entrepreneurs who are expanding business abroad in Russia’s
interests to fall under the block of Western and Russian reprisals.
This is what the ideologists of the new cold war in the United
States and Europe will be striving toward. They need to get rid of
economic competitors, instigate a mutiny and resist Russia’s policy
among the most mobile part of the population.