The Volgograd bombings: Russia’s new threat

The attacks in Volgograd have disrupted Putin’s narrative of a stable Russia and the ‘safest in history’ Sochi Olympics.

The most expensive in history, the Sochi Olympics will see an unprecedented security operation [AFP]

Every year, Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a video address, which main TV channels broadcast on December 31, five minutes before clocks strike midnight and the new year begins. It is usually recorded long in advance and contains upbeat messages about last year’s achievements and hopes for the new year. But this time the prepared address will probably have to be recorded again.

There is a lot of dark symbolism for Putin in the fact that two deadly explosions went off in Volgograd days before the New Year – Russia’s main family holiday, which is still far more important than Christmas. It goes back to the story of his breathtaking accession to power in 1999.  

In August of that year, president Boris Yeltsin proclaimed Putin, then the little known head of Russian security services, as his successor and gave him the prime minister’s post. In September, a series of deadly terror attacks shook the country. Five apartment blocks were blown up in Moscow and other cities. Putin blamed it on Chechen rebels, who had also launched an incursion into neighbouring Dagestan. He sent troops to repel that attack, which they succeeded to do. But having reached the Chechen border, they continued marching on the capital Grozny with the aim of completely destroying the self-ruled Chechen state which was by then mired in anarchy and violence.

A new era

On December 31, 1999, President Yeltsin – instead of making the traditional New Year address – announced [Ru] his resignation and left Putin in charge of the country. While most Russians were drinking champagne and dancing on New Year’s Eve, as they always do, the teetotal new Russian leader boarded a plane in the wee hours on January 1 and flew to Chechnya, where he met with troops who were laying siege to Grozny.

It was an impressive show of confidence, considering all the humiliation the Russian army suffered in Chechnya throughout the 1990s. At this point, many in the country started to believe that here was the man who could bring what they wanted most after an extremely tumultuous decade – stability. Many terrible setbacks followed, including the attacks on the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, and a school in Beslan, but the overall perception in Russia – rubbed into people’s brains by shameless TV propaganda – was that Putin has made Russia stable, strong and prosperous.

Due to begin in six-weeks’ time, the Olympic Games in Sochi were intended to become a triumph of stability brought about by Putin.

Stability is Russia’s sacred cow. During the years of Putin’s reign most Russians watched silently as their government stripped them of constitutional rights and freedoms – so paramount was the demand for stability. Some resemblance of it had indeed been achieved – not because of any institutional or economic reforms, but thanks to favourable oil prices.

Due to begin in six-weeks’ time, the Olympic Games in Sochi were intended to become a triumph of stability brought about by Putin. With its subtropical climate, Sochi is not exactly an obvious choice for a winter sports venue in such a cold country as Russia. But bringing the Olympics to the restive North Caucasus region is designed as yet another show of confidence. Putin wants the world to know that he is in control and that the discourse of war and instability in the region is long outdated.

Disrupting the Olympics

Except it is not, which the Volgograd bombings brutally confirmed. When back in July, Chechen jihadist leader Doku Umarov pledged that his militants would disrupt the Sochi Olympics, it  was hardly noticed by the Russian public. The last major attack on civilian targets outside the North Caucasus had occurred almost three years ago, when a suicide bomber blew himself up at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.

After that, there was a lull during which the view prevailed that North Caucasus militants lack sufficient funds and manpower to stage attacks outside their patch. While Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – former rebel and Putin’s protege who rules the republic with an iron fist – kept opening new skyscrapers in Grozny and inviting Hollywood stars to his slick, newly-rebuilt capital, Umarov was increasingly perceived as a non-entity waiting to be killed in one of the regular mopping-up operations in the mountains. Less than two weeks before the Volgograd attacks, Kadyrov indeed announced that Umarov had been long dead. “We are hunting for a corpse”, he said [Ru].

The Volgograd attacks demonstrate that whoever recruits, indoctrinates and commands suicide bombers has an excellent sense of planning and logistics plus sufficient resources to undertake sophisticated subversive operations. A particularly dangerous novelty of recent attacks is the apparent involvement of ethnic Russian converts, who are considerably less likely to raise suspicions while moving around in central Russia or infiltrating a potential target. If an ordinary Russian lad can be indoctrinated and recruited, why can’t a policeman or a security officer?

The Games look like a metaphor of Putin’s ‘stability’.

Sochi: An island of security

Now one can only guess whether these resources have been exhausted or there are more attacks in the pipeline. The head of Sochi organisational committee, Dmitry Chernyshenko, has promised that Games will be “the safest in history“.

The authorities have made a massive effort to turn the city into a hermetic and fully controlled space. Unaccredited outsiders will be banned from entering Sochi as of January 2. Telephone and Internet communications will be tapped into and analysed on the scale that makes the PRISM affair look amateurish. Drones will be hovering over the city to detect any suspicious movements. Despite the recent attacks, guests at the games still probably have very little to fear.

Yet, what will all these security measures be worth, if a series of suicide bombings takes place elsewhere in the country. Even one such attack will make Sochi Olympics remembered as indeed the most unsafe and tragic since Munich 1972.

Sochi Games have already broken a historic record by becoming the world’s most expensive Olympics ever. Its cost by far, exceeds any of the summer games, which are supposed to be more expensive by definition because of a much greater number of competitions and participating athletes. Yet its success can still be undermined by a compact guerrilla group based in one of the smallest regions of Russia.

The Games look like a metaphor of Putin’s “stability” – a lavish party thrown to distract attention from the fact that his much lauded achievements are hinging on luck and that the system he has built is hardly sustainable in the long run. It will be extremely unfair if people have to pay with their lives to make this obvious.

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.