On Sunday, December 29, a bomb exploded in the entrance of the main train station in Volgograd, Russia, where people were lining up to enter the building. Early the next morning, a bomb exploded on a packed trolleybus during rush hour. The two attacks killed a total of 34 people, with many more wounded.
The suicide bombings came just before New Year’s Eve, which is a particularly big holiday in Russia and comes just weeks away from the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a popular resort town on the Black Sea coast.
No one has claimed responsibility, but fingers were immediately pointed toward Russia’s North Caucasus. Doku Umarov, the leader of an umbrella Islamist organization known as the Caucasus Emirate, had previously called on his followers to use “maximum force” to prevent the Winter Olympics from taking place.
Since the attacks, security has been boosted in the city of about 1 million people, which is a major transport hub for southern Russia. There was confusion as officials tried to identify the attackers—or even whether they were male or female. Thousands of buildings have been searched, with 5,200 police and Interior Ministry troops patrolling the streets and on public transportation. Eighty-seven people were detained, but apparently no one linked to the bombings.
Why Volgograd? There is no obvious answer. The city is some 400 miles northeast of Sochi, and not part of the North Caucasus, where suicide bombings often take place. Volgograd also has a symbolic place in Russian history: in 1942, Stalingrad, as the city was called during the Soviet period, was the site of a pivotal World War II battle.
The reason may be practical. Sochi is heavily guarded ahead of the Olympics, and a security zone stretching about 60 miles along the coast and 25 miles inland has been set up. But the whole of Russia cannot be made so safe. “What the secret services should now presume is that the Volgograd bombings were intended as a diversion, to distract their attention from Sochi,” wrote Andrei Soldatov, a Russian security services expert who edits the website Agentura.ru, in a piece published in the Telegraph.
For Oliver Bullough, Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, what's particularly striking is that the bombers have kept coming back to the same place. In October, a female suicide bomber blew herself up on a bus in Volgograd, killing seven people. The bombers "clearly feel completely confident that the police won't stop them, which is very worrying for Russia in general and Volgograd in particular,” he told me.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited victims in hospital and mentioned them in his New Year's Address: “Dear friends, we bow our heads before the victims of the terrible terrorist attacks,” he said. “I am confident that we will fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their total destruction.”
The problem is, he has been saying this for a long time. Russia has seen a lot of terrorist attacks; 1,896 since 1991, as mapped by the Guardian. Back in 1999, shortly before he first became president, he said that he would hunt down terrorists and memorably promised to “waste them in the outhouse.” In Russia’s North Caucasus, bombings and shootings are regular fare. But up until the first explosion in Volgograd in October, the situation outside the North Caucasus had calmed in the wake of the suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in January 2011, which killed 37 people. This was attributed to Russian Islamists’ moratorium on attacks in Russia, supposedly in response to the anti-Putin protests in Moscow. But in June, Umarov (who has claimed responsibility for the Domodedovo airport attack) lifted the moratorium, in the video where he called for attacks on the Sochi Olympics.
In the past, Putin has used terrorist attacks to strengthen his grip on Russia. The September 1999 “apartment bombings”—a series of explosions in Moscow and other cities—were important as Putin, then prime minister, succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president. Later, he used 2004's Beslan school massacre to further centralize power. But the Volgograd bombings this week “just make Putin look bad, or worse, incompetent,” argues Bullough. “He has been promising to end terrorism for 14 years and terrorism hasn't ended.”
For Moscow, the Sochi Winter Olympics are a matter of prestige; of showing the world what Russia can do. But the Games have been under fire from the start. Apart from their astronomical cost—at $51 billion, these are the most expensive Olympics in history—they have been criticized for corruption and damage to the environment. And as relations with Russia have cooled in recent months, a number of world leaders, including the presidents of Germany, France, and the United States, have announced that they will be skipping the Games. This is understood to be over human rights abuses.
Now, the Volgograd attacks have revived concerns about the security of the whole event. Sochi is worryingly close to the North Caucasus. Chechnya still bears the wounds of the two wars that the Kremlin waged against it in the 1990s; the second launched in 1999, when Putin was prime minister. Today, Chechnya is ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, a former Chechen rebel who now backs Putin (and is famously active on Instagram). But despite Moscow’s efforts to tame the region by force, the situation remains volatile in Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, and in Dagestan, which Bullough called “a little corner of Afghanistan transplanted to Russia.”
Ultimately, Sochi has "brought attention to all the downsides of Russia that Putin hopes to hide,” says Bullough. The Games open on February 7. Shortly after the attacks this week, the president of the International Olympic Committee said he was confident that the Russian authorities would provide a “safe and secure” Games.
But it is difficult to feel safe now, in Volgograd and beyond. Some Russian internet users are comparing the situation to 1999, after the apartment bombings. “The atmosphere reminds me of that autumn when they were blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow," tweeted Russian writer Sergein Minaev. "It seems as if war has been declared again.” International athletes may also be having doubts about whether to travel to Sochi; Torah Bright, an Australian Winter Olympic gold medallist, told the Australian media this week that she would not take part in the Games if the terrorism situation worsened.
Many commentators fear that there will be another attack soon. The question is: where?
Follow Annabelle on Twitter: @AB_Chapman