Putin’s problem

December 31, 2013 - 5:31:00 am
The Russian city of Volgograd was hit by a second bombing yesterday in as many days, killing at least fourteen people and injuring dozens at a crowded trolleybus, puncturing Kermlin’s claims that security is under control in a region that will host the winter Olympics in less than six weeks. The second bombing came less than 24 hours after 16 people were killed in a suicide attack at the city’s main railway station. Even for a tough president like Vladimir Putin, the bombings pose a huge challenge and can cause tension in the coming weeks.

Major sports events are not just sports events these days, but occasions to showcase nations’ pomp and glory. And Putin too has invested heavily, not only in financial terms but in image-building and every other sense, to make the winter games a huge and spectacular success. Sports events are hugely sensitive to threat perceptions and even minor incidents can create worries. The terrorists who have launched the attacks are aware of this fact and this is precisely the reason they are targeting the Sochi games.

The bombings have sent shockwaves in the region, and have rippled outward, as they did after Russia’s other major terrorism incidents in Moscow (1999, 2002 and 2010), Budyonnovsk (1995) and Beslan (2004). Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, too has great symbolic importance for Russians. It is the site of the bloodiest battle of the second world war – something that north Caucausian jihadist websites were quick to point out after the train station bombing.

After the twin bombings, Putin will have to struggle hard to instill confidence in the international community. He has ordered a security crackdown, and though that will produce results, extremists can still strike. Volgograd lies just above the North Caucasus region, the mainly Muslim region from which many of Russia’s extremists come, including both Chechnya and Dagestan. It is more than 400 miles from Sochi, but it is a transport hub for people travelling to the south. 

Also, the Russian president has been taking steps to make the Sochi games successful. He recently took a series of steps to assuage Western feelings, which include the release of Greenpeace protestors, members of the Pussy Riot band and businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But persistent security concerns can create new headaches.

Kremlin should have foreseen these attacks. Over the summer Russia’s chief insurgent leader, Doku Umarov, had given a chilling warning.  In a four-minute video clip released in July, he announced a new, violent campaign against Russian leaders. He even threatened to blow up Sochi. The Chechen problem will continue to haunt Putin until a final solution is found, and the winter games is getting caught in between•
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