Did St. Petersburg bombing bring Russia's Syria intervention back home?

Though Russia has been dealing with terrorism for many years, it has mostly been rooted in domestic conflicts in the Caucasus. But Monday's deadly bombing of a St. Petersburg metro seems likely linked to Russia's involvement in Syria's civil war.

Anton Vaganov/Reuters
People mourn next to a memorial site for the victims of a blast in St. Petersburg metro, at Tekhnologicheskiy Institut metro station in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 4.

Terrorism returned to Russia's heartland Monday after a long period of what now appears deceptive calm, with a suicide bombing that killed at least 11 people, and injured 51, in the St. Petersburg metro.

As in the West, Russians tend to rally around their leaders at such times. And, like his Western counterparts, President Vladimir Putin does not appear interested in inviting public discussion about what role, if any, Russia's decision to become involved in Syria's civil war might have played in bringing about such tragic blowback.

But analysts say that the identification of the bomber as Kyrgyz-born Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, from the turbulent central Asian city of Osh, raises the distinct possibility that such links will be found.

"Until now, the main official argument for our intervention in Syria has been that we are fighting Russian and former Soviet terrorists over there, so we don't have to face them here," says Alexander Golts, an independent security expert.

Though there are no hard figures, it is thought that at least 3,000 Russians, mainly from the country's Muslim republics, have gone to the Middle East to fight alongside extreme Islamist groups. Security experts say that has significantly relieved the pressure at home, though there has always been concern about what happens when they return to Russia.

"This event in St. Petersburg puts a huge question mark over that strategy of killing our terrorists in Syria, far from our own soil," says Mr. Golts. "Now it's clear that it doesn't work."

Russian solidarity

Few average Russians appear willing to make that connection.

"I feel terrible for people in St. Petersburg," says Nadezhda Mamonova, a Moscow office worker. "Do I blame Muslims? Not particularly. But I don't exclude the possibility that it has something to do with our involvement in Syria."

Nina Moreyeva, a Moscow pensioner, says she doesn't blame anyone in particular and thinks the "general situation in the world is what's causing this."

The St. Petersburg bombing produced a familiar wave of public shock and grief, as well as an impressive degree of social solidarity.

The Russian media have reported heavily on the latter factor, which saw many people rush to the scene of the bombing to offer help and support. The capacity of Russians to show spontaneous kindness and generosity is not news to anyone who has lived among them but, amplified by social media, it was on full display as neighborhood people opened their homes to survivors to offer tea, sympathy, and a chance to calm their nerves by "petting our cat." The taxi service Uber extended free rides for the day, while many ordinary St. Petersburgers converged on the attack site to drive shaken victims home.

Echoes from Chechnya

Mass casualty attacks have hit Russia many times in the past two decades. A terrible cycle of terrorist violence hit central Russia after 1999, just as the new leadership of Mr. Putin launched a war to subdue the north Caucasus republic of Chechnya, which had been largely taken over by Islamist extremists. Thousands died in a wave of attacks, orchestrated mainly by Chechen militants, culminating in an eerily similar series of Moscow metro bombings seven years ago.

After a long and particularly savage war, Chechnya was subdued and handed over to local pro-Moscow strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has kept a tight lid on extremism and, indeed, all forms of dissent.

The relative peace has lasted, with a few exceptions, for several years. Russia's September 2015 intervention in Syria produced some misgivings among those who recalled the former USSR's fateful war in Afghanistan, and an airliner full of Russian tourists was destroyed over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. But there had been no big attacks by Islamist militants, or lone-wolf copycats, such as those that have struck in Western countries who are fighting in the Middle East, such as the US, Britain, and France.

That lull may be ending. Still, there seems little doubt that Russia's stoic public will take it in stride, as they have many times in the past, says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, Russia's only independent pollster.

It's too soon to have any polling in the aftermath of the St. Petersburg attack, he says, "but the basic public response will likely be the same as in the past: the authorities should be tougher and exert strict control, and all such measures are to be supported. Of course the context is different now. In the past, the public connected terrorist acts with terrorists from the north Caucasus. Now we have the figure of the international terrorist, which seems more abstract to people."

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