News analysis

New dangers for Putin in fallout from St Petersburg attack

Russian President Vladimir Putin placing flowers in memory of victims of the blast in the Saint Petersburg metro outside Technological Institute station, on April 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP
The Russian national flag and the flag of St Petersburg flying at half-mast in tribute to the victims of a blast in St Petersburg metro. PHOTO: REUTERS

Russian criminal investigators are continuing their hunt for the culprits of the terrorist attack on an underground train in St Petersburg, the country's old imperial capital, which killed 14 people and injured more than 50.

But the realisation that at least one of the perpetrators was a suspected suicide bomber from the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia will be received with alarm by Russian intelligence services, for it may herald the start of a new and far more dangerous phase in Russia's decades-long struggle with terrorism.

The latest terrorist attack also directly challenges the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rose to power almost two decades ago with his now-famous promise to "rub out" terrorists "even if they hid in a latrine", only to discover that they constantly discover other places to hide.

According to the Global Terrorism Database maintained by the University of Maryland in the United States, over 3,500 Russians or Soviet citizens have been killed since the 1970s in no fewer than 828 different terrorist attacks.

But the attacks intensified after the disintegration of the Soviet empire, and particularly after Chechens and other Muslim minorities in Russia's restless Caucasian south started their fight for independence. The Russian military crushed these separatist movements, but the victory merely spawned terrorist movements and some of the world's worst atrocities.

This is the first time St Petersburg, Russia's architectural jewel and home to five million residents, was hit, but the attack conforms to the new strategy adopted by terrorists.

In September 1995, for instance, Chechen fighters stormed a Russian hospital, butchering more than 100 patients in their beds. In 1999, terrorists blew up apartment buildings in Moscow, killing more than 300, and this was followed by the 2002 storming of a theatre in Moscow in which at least 170 perished. And, in what is remembered as the foulest attack of all, 300 people - mostly children - perished when terrorists stormed a school in the southern Russian village of Beslan in 2004.

Over the past few years, however, Russia's terrorist threat morphed into new and far more menacing directions.

With roads into Russia's main cities monitored and more police patrolling urban centres, terrorists are now concentrating on targeting transport nodes, such as Russia's high-speed railways, underground systems and airports, as these are the most difficult to defend.

This is the first time St Petersburg, Russia's architectural jewel and home to five million residents, was hit, but the attack conforms to the new strategy adopted by terrorists.

Yet there is a second, far more ominous development: The terrorists striking at Russia today are not Chechen, but belong to wider violent movements around the world which resent Russia's military involvement in Syria, as well as what they perceive as the anti-Islamic policies of Mr Putin.

The 2015 destruction of a Russian aircraft in midair, an atrocity which killed 224 people, was claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group. And the latest St Petersburg bombing appears to have been committed by Akbarzhon Jalilov, who comes from Kyrgyzstan and subsequently obtained Russian citizenship.

Jalilov was apparently born in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, located in the multi-ethnic and violent Fergana Valley, an area which Russian intelligence services have long feared could become a hotbed of terrorism.

Russia, which maintains a military base in Kyrgyzstan, has for some time been trying to nudge the country's authorities to do more to stifle violent extremism; one of the key topics for discussion when Mr Putin visited Kyrgyzstan in February was counter-terrorism cooperation. But the impoverished former Soviet state seems unable to halt the march of radicalisation - more than 500 Kyrgyz citizens are now assumed to be fighting for ISIS in Syria.

For Mr Putin, who hails from St Petersburg and was in the city when the attacks took place, the latest atrocity is a serious challenge. Traditionally, he used every terrorist attack to strengthen his political hold over the country. He claimed that he needed these powers to defeat Russia's enemies.

However, the latest terrorist attack works in the opposite direction: It raises awkward questions about Russia's ability to control its frontiers in Central Asia, as well as Mr Putin's decision to grant citizenship to Central Asians on relatively easy terms, a policy which is already deeply resented by ordinary Russians.

Bloodshed in St Petersburg also questions Russia's strategy of fighting in the Middle East so it will not have to fight at home, as Mr Putin frequently argues. He is now discovering - as did a number of other European countries - that the backlash from international operations often translates into additional terrorism at home.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'New dangers for Putin in fallout from St Petersburg attack'. Subscribe