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Dagestan suicide bombings have Russia looking to Putin

The Dagestan suicide bombings on Wednesday were the latest in a spate of attacks that has many in Russia looking to Vladimir Putin, whose reputation was built on tough talk and action against insurgents.

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"We now know that these systems cannot prevent terror attacks, but they help law enforcement agencies identify helpers and organizers," he said. But neither he nor Medvedev have so far offered any hint of a fresh strategy.

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Putin's chance to concentrate power

"We had a certain level of complacency in recent years, because of the relative peace in Russian cities, but it never stopped happening in the North Caucasus," says Viktor Mizin, deputy director of the official Institute of International Studies in Moscow. "Now we need urgent measures that combine military methods with economic development and political change. It's a very tall order, and there are clearly no quick fixes."

Following the last large-scale terrorist strike – the 2004 hostage crisis at a Beslan school that resulted in more than 300 deaths – then-president Putin forced through draconian political changes that strengthened the security forces, concentrated more power in the Kremlin, and canceled regional elections.

The current wave of terrorism might be similarly used to force through radical reforms of the Interior Ministry, which oversees Russia's police forces, and also to end a recent internal debate about the need to liberalize the Kremlin-centered, authoritarian political system that Putin established.

"This will probably end any talk of political reform for the time being," says Petrov. "They'll say 'we're in a war against terror, we can't afford the luxury of discussing this right now,' and so on."

'The aim of terrorists is to goad us'

But the Kremlin might also fear that launching a new crackdown against the insurgent groups in the North Caucasus could bring on fresh terrorist assaults against Moscow.

"Lately, special services have been very successful in assassinating chiefs of terrorist groups in the North Caucasus," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "The Moscow bombings can be read as a clear message to security services, which is: Stop killing our leaders, or we'll attack targets like the Moscow metro."

Some experts say that, whatever Russian leaders decide, they need to accept that the option of using force alone to stem a rising insurgency has not worked.

"The aim of the terrorists is to goad us into cracking down, changing our political system because we fear the threat from them," says Mr. Mizin of the Institute of International Studies. "It would be very good if President Medvedev gave a strong statement that, despite the sorrow we feel and our determination to fight, that we will not sacrifice the democracy we've been building or our standards of civilized conduct in the cause of fighting terror."

IN PICTURES: Bombings in Russia