Deadly explosions ripped into the Russian city Volgograd for the second day in a row, causing the death of at least 14 people, and raising security concerns in the weeks before the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Monday’s explosion of an electric trolley bus follows follows a blast at Volgograd’s main railway station on Sunday that killed another 17 and injured 50 civilians. According to Russia’s Investigative Committee, a male suicide bomber caused the blast, though his remains still need to be analyzed to determine an identity and possible affiliation. “The blast was so strong that the windows of the five-storey building opposite were blown out,” said Vladimir Markin, the committee’s spokesman, in a statement. “According to our preliminary data, the power of the explosive device was equivalent to at least 4kg TNT.”
Both Sunday and Monday’s bombs contained shrapnel that was “identical,” pointing to a link between the explosions, the Investigative Committee said. “That confirms the investigators’ version that both terrorist attacks were linked,” Vladimir Markin told Russian television. “They could have been prepared in one place.”
The Associated Press video shows the remains of the bus, with blown out windows and emergency responders near the scene of the explosion:
While no individual or group has claimed credit for the bombings, Dmitiri Trenin, Carnegie Institute’s Moscow Director, sees the outlines of a strategic goal in the targets that the perpetrators have chosen. “For the time being, and maybe in preparation for bigger strikes, the terrorists have focused on some of the softer targets in the south of Russia,” Trenin writes. “Soft, but not unimportant. Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, a symbol of Russia’s tragedy and triumph in World War II, has been singled out by the terrorists precisely because of its status in people’s minds. Their aim was to hurt Russia’s pride, as well as its people.” So far in response, St. Petersburg has cancelled its New Year’s fireworks amid safety concerns.
For now, it remains unclear just how these latest attacks will effect preparations for Sochi, due to take place in just six weeks. Russia had already begun stepping up “security efforts” ahead of the Olympics, including preparing to monitor all communications in the Black Sea city. Moscow has also banned rallies and protests scheduled to coincide with the Olympics, and begun collecting DNA samples from Muslim women. The DNA sampling began after another suicide bombing in Volgograd in October. “In response, security forces have blown up the homes of attackers’ relatives, sealed off mountain villages and rounded up young men suspected of having ties to armed fighters,” Radio Free Europe reported at the time.
That response mirrors what has been seen in parts of the Russian Federation, including the Caucasus states of Chechnya and Dagestan, that have been home to intermittent fighting over the decades, as the Kremlin has clashed with nationalist sentiments from the regions’ inhabitants as well as Islamic extremism. Earlier this year, the Caucasus Emirate’s Doku Umarov called for fighters to disrupt the the Olympics. Fingers have already begun to be pointed towards the region, with Russian news service Interfax reporting a man who received training in Dagestan conducted the first bombing. The governor of Ingushetia also took to Russian television to warn about the need to combat “radical Islam.”
The United States, though at loggerheads with Russia over several other issues — including Syria and the crackdown on gay rights ahead of the Olympics — was quick to offer its sympathies. “The United States condemns in the strongest terms today’s terrorist attack in Volgograd,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement on Sunday. “We send our sincere condolences to the families of the victims and stand in solidarity with the Russian people against terrorism of any kind.” U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, himself a target of Russian animus at times, tweeted out, “All my thoughts and prayers – about victims of these heinous atrocities.”
The United States has offered to aid Russia in providing security during the Olympics. “The United States stands in solidarity with the Russian people against terrorism,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. “The U.S. government has offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games, and we would welcome the opportunity for closer cooperation for the safety of the athletes, spectators, and other participants.”