Staunton, VA, April 4, 2017 – Just as he has in the past, Vladimir Putin is counting on being able to exploit the latest horrific terrorist attack in Russia to boost his authority, to tighten the screws on Russian society, and to try to convince Western leaders that they should overlook his actions in Ukraine in the name of fighting international terrorism.
But the big question now and in the coming days is whether he will succeed in these efforts or whether the precedents from his own past will combine with the fact that this is the first major terrorist attack in central Russia in seven years and have exactly the opposite effect, undermining Putin’s power by raising more questions and thus contributing to destabilization.
Many commentators yesterday and today are arguing that the Petersburg metro attack which has already killed 11 will generate support for more repressive measures in the name of public safety, attitudes that Putin’s police state can be counted on to encourage and then exploit as in the past.
Others are saying that the terrorist attack and the likely response to it effectively “annuls” the impact of the March 26 anti-corruption marches and should end all talk about the weakness of the regime and the possibility that Russia has entered into a new revolutionary situation.
And still a third group is stressing that the terrorist action in St. Petersburg means that the international community must come together, as Putin has repeatedly urged, to fight the common enemy of international terrorism and that this fight is so important that they should ignore all other issues.
There can be little doubt these themes will have an impact, that Putin will gain support at home for repression in the name of fighting terrorism, and that he will win the backing of at least some Western leaders for raising counter-terrorism to the first place in the world’s agenda, all of which will boost his authority and carry with them the promise of stabilization in Russia.
But there are three reasons for thinking that the Petersburg terrorist act may have exactly the opposite effect at least among a sizeable number of Russians. First of all, the timing of this action is already leading some to ask whether Putin organized it as he did the 1999 apartment bombings.
The coincidence of a terrorist action occuring in Russia at precisely the time when Putin can best make use of it is leading some regime critics to suggest that the Kremlin must have known in advance or even helped to organize the action as horrific as the implications of that are.
In short, Putin’s past actions may work against him in this case even if it should prove to be true that neither he nor his siloviki had anything to do with yesterday’s bombing. In the flood of alternative explanations, at least some will believe that he is to blame now because he is to blame for earlier and similar crimes that worked to his benefit.
Second, as some commentators are pointing out, this is the first such terrorist act in central Russia since 2010. [Two terrorist attacks before the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014 killed a total of 31 people--The Interpreter]. Putin has promoted himself as someone who guarantees stability. But there are now two indications that he hasn’t succeeded: the March 26 demos and a major terrorist incident.
And third, the current problems Russians are facing means that in at least some cases they are evaluating terrorist actions differently than they did when the situation was better, with one writer says that now there is no economic stability and security but “only a frightened tyrant”.
Of course, it would be a mistake to see this as some kind of final “either-or” situation. Greater stability achieved by the Putin model could ultimately lead to greater instability given the changes in popular attitudes, and greater instability as a result of the terrorist act could become the occasion for the imposition of that model of stability once again.
But each round of such events is different than the last not only because both sides have suspicions about the other on the basis of what they know concerning the past but also because each sees every new event as raising the stakes and thus making it more, not less likely that each will harden its position toward the other.