Report

Putin Suspends All Russian Flights to Egypt as Fears of Terror Attack Grow

Is Moscow getting ready to acknowledge the Russian charter jet downed over the Sinai Peninsula may have been felled by a bomb?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended Friday all Russian flights to Egypt, a popular tourist destination, in the first sign Moscow may be ready to acknowledge that a Metrojet crash last weekend was a potential act of terrorism.

In the week since the crash, Putin has displayed caution in discussing what may have downed the chartered plane and killed all 224 onboard — most of them Russians. As recently as Thursday, Kremlin officials rejected speculation that the plane was targeted by terrorists, even as U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron both raised the possibility a bomb was hidden onboard. According to several recent reports, intelligence officials have intercepted communications suggesting the Islamic State planned the attack. 

In the past, Putin has not hesitated to use massive force in response to acts of terrorism against Moscow — or even suspected threats. In October 2002, Putin’s troops launched a heavy assault on the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow after it was overtaken by 40 Chechen separatists; 130 hostages were killed along with the separatists, according to the BBC. Two years later, more than 330 people were killed, including 186 children, according to CNN, when Putin ordered Russian tanks to fire on a North Ossetia school after it was seized by Chechen Islamic extremists in 2004. And in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the Russian strongman built a so-called “ring of steel” around the games as a safeguard against Chechen extremists.

This makes his reticence about the possible cause of the Metrojet plane crash all the more puzzling. In Ukraine, he has continued to back pro-Russian rebels in the country’s civil war, and his warplanes are now in Syria backing strongman Bashar al-Assad.

But the possibility of such a brazen act of terrorism against a Russian target — the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack — makes Moscow nervous. One reason for Putin’s cautious response may be fear of being sucked into a wider quagmire in the Middle East. Although Moscow has thrown its hat into Syria’s brutal civil war by bombing opposition rebels in as many as 800 airstrikes in the last month alone, it has limited the mission mainly to an air war and stopped short of deploying a large ground force. Putin’s army is already stretched as it manages both missions in Ukraine and Syria, and expanding its footprint in the Middle East could stress the force — and Moscow’s treasury — closer to the breaking point. Similarly, admitting that Russia has fallen prey to terrorism as a result of its intervention in Syria could prove politically damaging for Putin.

“This could really hurt Putin’s aura as a strong leader that can handle terrorism,” Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Foreign Policy on Friday. “Much of his image at home has been based off the idea that he can keep the Russian people safe. This could undercut that.”

Moscow’s intervention in Syria is also straining the country’s economy, which has been weakened by low oil prices, a weak ruble, and Western sanctions that were imposed to punish the Kremlin’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. Figures published by the Moscow Times, a Russian English-language newspaper, in conjunction with IHS Jane’s, a defense consultancy, estimated that airstrikes in Syria are costing Moscow up to $4 million per day and have roughly cost Russia approximately $80 million to $115 million since strikes began on Sept. 30.

More than a quarter of Russia’s budget in 2015 has been earmarked for military expenses, meaning the Kremlin can continue to fund its campaign in Syria. But defense spending will likely come at the expense of social programs, which have been slashed amid Moscow’s financial woes.

A late October poll released by the government-funded Russian Public Opinion Research Center said Putin’s popularity has soared to nearly 90 percent, in large part due to growing support over the air war in Syria. If the Metrojet disaster is confirmed as a terrorist attack, Putin’s approval rating will face its first major test since resuming the presidency in 2012.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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