Dispatch

The Moscow Bombings Don’t Matter

Why Monday's suicide attacks don't change a thing for Putin, Medvedev, or anyone else in Russia.

ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images
ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images

After Monday's shock, Tuesday morning in Moscow dawned bright and tense. No one had yet claimed responsibility for the twin suicide blasts that killed 39 people and injured dozens more in the Moscow metro, and the headlines, especially in the Western press, teemed with preemptive analysis: Did the trail really lead, as the FSB alleged, to the restive Northern Caucasus? Would there be more attacks? And if so, would there be massive retaliation, or even war? Were the attacks bad for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: a critical blow to his steely appeal, and a political contract based on trading liberties for security? Or were they good for him, a pretext to tighten the screws at home? What if Putin used the attack as proof that his dauphin President Dmitry Medvedev had lost control of the situation, necessitating Putin's triumphant return to the presidency in 2012?

These are, of course, important, rational questions. But they only matter if you view yesterday morning's subway bombing as a big deal -- and many political observers in Russia, from Kremlin insiders to linchpins of the opposition, do not. Was it gruesome and tragic and of earth-shifting significance to all those who lost friends and relatives? Absolutely. Was it a game changer in the grander scheme of things? Probably not.

"Is it a big deal?" asks Yulia Latynina, a veteran opposition Russian journalist who has long reported on the Caucasus. "No, it's not. What was it that even happened? Russia has been exploding for 11 years, just not in Moscow.'"

After Monday’s shock, Tuesday morning in Moscow dawned bright and tense. No one had yet claimed responsibility for the twin suicide blasts that killed 39 people and injured dozens more in the Moscow metro, and the headlines, especially in the Western press, teemed with preemptive analysis: Did the trail really lead, as the FSB alleged, to the restive Northern Caucasus? Would there be more attacks? And if so, would there be massive retaliation, or even war? Were the attacks bad for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: a critical blow to his steely appeal, and a political contract based on trading liberties for security? Or were they good for him, a pretext to tighten the screws at home? What if Putin used the attack as proof that his dauphin President Dmitry Medvedev had lost control of the situation, necessitating Putin’s triumphant return to the presidency in 2012?

These are, of course, important, rational questions. But they only matter if you view yesterday morning’s subway bombing as a big deal — and many political observers in Russia, from Kremlin insiders to linchpins of the opposition, do not. Was it gruesome and tragic and of earth-shifting significance to all those who lost friends and relatives? Absolutely. Was it a game changer in the grander scheme of things? Probably not.

"Is it a big deal?" asks Yulia Latynina, a veteran opposition Russian journalist who has long reported on the Caucasus. "No, it’s not. What was it that even happened? Russia has been exploding for 11 years, just not in Moscow.’"

In other words, when taken in the broader context of Russia and the slow-motion conflict in the Northern Caucasus — the 2004 explosion in the market in the southern Russian city of Samara (10 dead, 60 wounded), the two Russian passenger planes that simultaneously fell from the sky that same year (89 dead), the suicide bombing that nearly killed the Ingush president in June — the blasts in the Moscow subway by two female jihadis were just another parry, and not a very damaging one at that.

According to Irina Adrionova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, this blast was far less severe than Moscow’s last subway double-bombing, back in 2004. "Yesterday’s explosion took place when the train was already at the platform and had its doors open so the initial wave of the blast was more diffused than in 2004, when the train was in the tunnel," Adrionova explained. "And, in 2004, we also faced a fire of the highest magnitude."

Many observers — myself included — were struck by the orderliness of the emergency response. The Emergency Ministry instantly organized an information point for reporters and concerned relatives, posted frequently updated information on the victims’ whereabouts on its website, and recorded announcements listing hotline numbers, including one for psychological help, to be played in the metro. Digital billboards across the city flashed the numbers, too. By 5 p.m., just nine hours after the first blast, the metro was fully operational, in time for the evening rush hour. Even Medvedev and the normally floridly thuggish Putin were relatively measured in their responses.

"The main thing was that there was no panic this time," Adrionova told me. And she’s right. Riding the metro all day, I was struck by the fatalistic calm of the passengers. When I boarded a train just outside the Red Square early Monday afternoon, body bags were just starting to emerge from Lubyanka station. And yet the passenger next to me was explaining the unbelievable complexities of his hairdo to his girlfriend as if nothing had happened.

The psychological aspect of March 29 is important, of course, but it’s mostly notable for its relative smallness. Much has been made of the fact that the first bomber set herself off just under Lubyanka, the KGB/FSB headquarters. But Russians have an ambivalent and uneasy relationship with the security forces, which means the message goes right over the heads of the masses. This attack, though it struck at the most mundane part of life, the morning commute, did not have the psychological force of Beslan or the 2002 Nord-Ost theater siege. "If you compare this to a [Shamil] Basayev attack, this did not have the same psychological trauma," says Gleb Pavlovsky, who heads a think tank with ties to Medvedev, referring to the Chechen warlord responsible for both the Beslan and Nord-Ost attacks.

"Unfortunately, in Russia, the attitude is that until it doesn’t affect me personally, I can feel safe," says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "And ultimately, it was just 39 people in a city of 10 million."

But will the March 29 Moscow subway attacks become a provocative dropping of the gauntlet? And how will the Kremlin respond? Only a day has passed and definitive forecasts would be foolhardy, but let’s look at the proposed scenarios.

First: Bombings in the heart of Russia become a pattern, and Moscow retaliates with brute force, launching another war in the Caucasus.

"I don’t think so," says Grigory Shvedov of the Caucasian Knot, an information web portal about the region. "There are already around 80,000 troops and 50,000 officers in the region. What can they start there that’s new or supplementary? It’s hard to imagine. A third Chechen War," he adds, "is not really likely."*

Instead, observers from Pavlovsky to opposition figure and former parliament speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov think we are likely to see an increasing shift toward a softer, more political line in the Caucasus. The approach seemed to start with the January appointment of Alexander Khloponin as the Kremlin emissary responsible for restoring order there; his plan is more hearts-and-minds oriented than prior Kremlin strategies. "I’m a cautious optimist," the normally dour Ryzhkov says of the prospect of seeing more of a "strategy of political process and dialogue" in the region.

As for a stepped-up campaign from the Caucasus militants, Latynina cautions that it’s important not to overestimate the abilities of this corps, who last attacked in November when they bombed the Nevsky Express train and whose Monday bombing was rather sloppy: One bomber got lost, they took too long to detonate their explosives, and one of the explosive belts didn’t even go off. "All that stuff you see in the movies — the fancy hotels, the fake passports — our terrorists aren’t capable of that," Latynina says. "Our terrorists sit in three-star hotels with their own passports, unless they’re lucky and they can get the passport of a dead relative who was wanted for planting explosives. It’s James Bond, Caucasus style."

Second: The attack is a big blow to Putin’s credibility as someone who can maintain order.

Nope. There have been no attacks for six years, and Putin is still, by far, the most popular figure in the country. Russians don’t trust their police, their parliament, or their judges, but they trust him — which is why, in the midst of flat-bottomed economic crisis, he still has an 80 percent approval rating.

The danger to Putin’s rule — and it is still his — is going to come not from security threats, but from the erosion of his subjects’ well-being. And let’s not forget that on March 20, the so-called "Day of Wrath," organizers said they expected the number of protesters to double since the famous Kaliningrad protests that drew over 10,000 people in January. "Instead," say Lipman, "the number of people at the protests shrunk by half."

Third: Putin will use the bombing as a pretext to tighten the screws at home.

This is a reasonable expectation, given that this has been Putin’s preferred response to external threats, real or imagined. In 1999, a string of apartment bombings that left nearly 300 people dead became a pretext to employ extra-harsh methods in Chechnya, and to consolidate power at home. After the attack in Beslan in 2004, Putin announced that security would be improved if only we got rid of direct elections of governors and let him appoint them instead.

But the situation is markedly different today. Putin, with the help of Vladislav Surkov, the chief architect of the current political model, long ago solidified the so-called power vertical, and it is in no real danger. In the early and mid-2000s, says Ryzhkov, "the state was going on the offensive." Today, it is secure — maybe even hubristic — which is why we didn’t see a screw-tightening after the war in Georgia in August 2008, or during the worst of the financial crisis.

Of course, one can never underestimate Putin’s predilection to screw-turning — he has already said he will seek out the suspected accomplices "at the bottom of the sewer" — but there just isn’t a need this time, which is probably why he and Medvedev made sure to look calm as well as strong.

Fourth: Putin will use this as a way to make Medvedev look weak so he can take back the presidency in 2012.

"Look at any polls about who’s more important, Medvedev or Putin," says Lipman. "The Russian people — and I’m talking about the Russian people here, not the elites — the Russian people say Putin is." (Forbes recently rated the most powerful people in the world: Putin was 3rd, Medvedev 43rd.)

"If they had open and free elections, and democratic observers came, Russian citizens would still elect Putin," says Shvedov. "He doesn’t need to use the bombing [as a pretext] because he doesn’t have to lift a finger to win."

On their own, then, and aside from the loss of life, the March 29 attacks are fairly meaningless. People avoided the metro for a day, maybe they’ll avoid it for another week, but, as one Monday evening commuter told me, life goes on. "Even if I stay home today, I’d have to go tomorrow or the day after," he said. According to a recent poll, 62 percent of Russians said that they try to go on with their lives, avoiding contact with the government — which 85 percent of them know they can’t influence — as much as possible. Life in Russia is about that: the mundane, the life in front of one’s nose. So unless security once again becomes a daily issue, as it was in the first years of the Putin presidency, don’t expect the occasional, messy attack to make Russians rally for change. Russians are used to the random, horrific event and have set their standards accordingly.

"What else can we do?" shrugged another Monday commuter. "I could be walking and an icicle will hit me in the head. We’re all walking under God. When it’s our time, he won’t ask us."

*This paragraph has been updated to reflect a correction in the number of Russian troops stationed in the Caucasus.

Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.

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