Russia has never been safe from terrorism. A history of being an authoritarian superpower that supresses numerous ethnic minorities will have that effect. This showed through yet again this week when Volgograd was hit by two suicide bombers, in the central train station and on a bus. 34 were killed and 60 were injured. So who is behind it? And what is the background to this?
Firstly, the bombers most likely came from the mainly Islamic Northern Caucasus region of Russia, to the north of Georgia. This region contains the republic of Chechnya, which has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia fought a full-scale war there in the early 90s and lost, then returned in 1999. The second time around they reduced much of Chechnya to rubble, and bought it back under Russian control.
However this invasion didn’t bring an end to Chechen terrorism. In 2002 Chechens took hostages in a Moscow theatre, which ended with over 170 dead. A year later they occupied a primary school in the Northern Caucasus region. When Russian special forces stormed the school almost 400 people were killed by the hostage takers or due to the army’s excessive firepower. Since then there have been numerous smaller attacks, including bombings at Moscow airport.
So why now? And why Volgograd? The answer to the first question is simple: The Winter Olympics. The Games start in a month’s time and President Putin is hoping that they’ll cast Russia in a good light, as well as showing the nation’s return to the world stage. A bombing at the Games in Sochi would be a humiliation for a president who portrays himself as a strongman. However, these bombings, and the resulting 700 arrests have already shown how unstable Russia can be, and how much of an authoritarian state it still is.
While the name Volgograd might not ring a bell with many people, its previous name of Stalingrad certainly will. The city was the site of the Second World War battle that turned the tide of the war, and ended with over a million Russian casualties in a completely destroyed Stalingrad. The city became a symbol of Russian resistance, and is still dominated by a statue of Mother Russia, one of the tallest statues in the world. Attacking this city sends the message that Russian resistance is no longer strong enough, and strikes at a symbol of something almost sacred for Russians; their resistance in the war.
It’s doable to protect a stadium, but to protect an entire city is almost impossible. Any attack would destroy the Olympic atmosphere, and take the attention even further off sport. Given the high levels of corruption in the Russian police force, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if an attacker managed to slip through security in Sochi. Seeing as some of the remaining Chechen insurgent leaders have already made it clear they intend to hit the Games, this will be a very tense few weeks for Vladimir Putin.