The Moscow Airport Bombing: How Will Putin Respond?

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Nikolay Korchekov / Reuters

Medics wheel a victim of a bomb explosion at Moscow Domodedovo Airport from an emergency vehicle into the N.V. Sklifosovsky Scientific Research Institute of First Aid in Moscow on Jan. 24, 2011

The scene was horrific, and after the subway bombings that shocked Moscow last March, it was also tragically familiar. Early Monday evening, Jan. 24, the blast from another suicide attack filled the arrivals hall of Moscow's largest airport with piles of bodies, severed limbs and plumes of smoke. This time, at least 31 people were killed and more than 150 injured in what President Dmitri Medvedev immediately deemed an act of terrorism. But as he surely knows, his credibility and that of the government are among the victims. With this attack occurring less than a year after the subway slaughter that killed some 40 people, it seems unlikely that Russians will be reassured about security even if Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — the country's strongman and Medvedev's mentor — steps in.

Police cited surveillance tapes indicating that a man bearing the bomb apparently snuck past lax security to enter the airport terminal. It is not yet clear whether he was the same man police were looking for earlier Monday morning, when they swept through the Moscow suburb of Zelenograd. According to police sources quoted in the Russian press, that raid was prompted by a tip that a terrorist attack was about to take place. But no arrests were made, and no warnings were issued to the public. Since the airport blast, the police have claimed that the attacker came from the same mountains in the North Caucasus as the two female suicide bombers who struck the Moscow metro during the morning commute on March 29, 2010. Those mountains are a breeding ground for Islamist terrorists who have been fighting for more than a decade to break away from Moscow's rule.

Though shaken by the March bombings, Muscovites have since shrugged at reports of would-be terrorists in their midst — perhaps comforted by a crackdown in the Caucasus in April. There was little alarm on Dec. 10 when police arrested a woman from the Caucasus suspected of preparing a suicide attack in Moscow: the news was given short shrift by the Russian press, and the government did not visibly increase security in the capital. "Clearly, it does not take long for people to be lulled into a sense of security, especially when they are only confronted with the danger [from the North Caucasus] when it is too late, when it comes to Moscow," says Pavel Baev, an expert on the region at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

Typically, it is Putin's job to calm the public by pledging to "liquidate" terrorists or to "drown them in the outhouse," as he did after each of the dozen terrorist attacks to hit Moscow on his watch. But so far he has restrained his bravado, limiting his public statements to a perfunctory meeting with the Health Minister, whom he urged to make sure that the victims of Monday's attack get help. That left Medvedev, a far less nimble rhetorician, to fumble for an explanation. "What happened suggests that far from every one of the laws that should be working is working in some places," he said at an emergency meeting of his security chiefs — hardly the kind of verbal toughness that Russians expect from their leaders.

But talking tough may have seemed inappropriate after the failures of Russia's antiterrorism campaign over the past few months. In November, Medvedev rebuked police officials for giving him what he called "crap" statistics to mask the region's terrorist activity, which has continued to soar even after the crackdown that followed the subway blasts. On Dec. 8, the General Prosecutor's office admitted that terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus quadrupled in 2010. And now it has again returned to Moscow, forcing the city's residents to call loved ones to check on whether they were among the latest batch of victims. For some, it is beginning to feel like a ritual.

Taken together, these failures form a lengthening indictment of the ruling duo's approach to the Caucasus dilemma. Since Medvedev rose to power in 2008, he and Putin have turned their focus to developing the region's economy and creating jobs, all in the hope of luring Muslim youths away from extremism. They pressed ahead with this strategy even after it was discredited by the subway bombings in March, and last week, Putin pledged an additional $13 billion in 2011 alone to help fight unemployment in the North Caucasus.

Compared with the brutality that had defined Moscow's attempts to control the region in the past — including the kidnappings, executions and acts of collective punishment reported by human-rights groups for years — these financial efforts had marked a welcome turnaround. "But the latest attack shows there are grievances against Moscow down there not connected to any economic factors," says Baev. "You can't buy these people off."

If so, Russia's leaders are left with few options when it comes to the Caucasus. They may no longer even have words. "The macho line can't work this time, not even for Putin," says Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst in Moscow. "You can't pound your chest for the 150th time when the past 149 times have failed to bring any results. The Russian people can't be fooled by this anymore."

Short of a declaration of all-out war, it is hard to imagine an effort to pacify the North Caucasus with any more police and special forces. Already the region is a patchwork of police states run by dictators installed by Moscow, but the terrorist cells continue to thrive. So as Monday's airport bombing pushes the issue of security back to the center of the national debate, Putin and Medvedev are likely to find their usual methods dulled. They could look for scapegoats among their deputies, or they could again promise to annihilate the terrorists in the most colorful way they can think of. But neither of these maneuvers will do much to convince the Russian public that the terrorist threat is under control. The bombings are already convincing them of the opposite.