The past few weeks have been a time of reckoning for Russia.
Anti-corruption protests have rocked the nation recently, sparked by opposition leader Alexei Nalavny, a foe of President Vladimir Putin. Among other figures, the demonstrations have targeted Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who, opponents argue, has amassed his wealth through bribes and state loans. The protests have led to considerable violence and a number of arrests, causing turmoil and putting Russia on edge.
But the uprisings have taken a backseat to more pressing issues this week.
An explosion on Monday in St. Petersburg, Russia killed at least 14 people and wounded more than 50. Details of the attack are still being released, but current information suggests that the bomb went off on a subway car in the city’s metro system in the early afternoon, seemingly detonated by a suicide bomber. A second bomb was later found and deactivated at another metro station in the city. Following the bombing, all metro stations were closed while Russians paid tribute to victims and grappled with a return to violence.
Russia is no stranger to extremism. In 2009, a bombing on a train bound for St. Petersburg from Moscow killed 27 people. A year later, a twin suicide bombing killed 40 people and wounded more than 100 others in the Moscow underground. It’s part of a larger pattern of terror that the nation has been battling for years. According to the Washington Post, more than 3500 people have died in over 800 attacks since 1970 — more than any other country in Europe. The vast majority of the attacks have been carried out by Russians themselves, dissatisfied with social and political problems within the country, especially in the Caucuses. Particularly volatile is Chechnya, which suffered through two horrific wars during the 1990s. Chechnya is contending with both a separatist movement and severe human rights violations, and has historically served as one of Russia’s bloodiest regions.
Brutal crackdowns from the Russian government and the rise of groups like ISIS have caused many Russians to redirect their attention from areas like Chechnya, however. Thousands of Russians are believed to be fighting in Syria and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. It’s a shift that has meant a drop in violence back home, but now that drop may be coming at a cost.
Several Kremlin loyalists worked to connect the attack in St. Petersburg to protesters in its aftermath, while others blamed poor security for the breach. A number of national and international publications linked the bombing to ISIS soon after it took place, presuming it to be an act of revenge for Russia’s involvement in bloody Syria’s civil war. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack yet, Russia has been targeted for its involvement in Syria before, most notably last December when the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by a man exclaiming, “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!”
Those looking for a Syria connection may have one. On Tuesday, officials named a suspect in the bombing: Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, a Russian citizen and a native of Kyrgyzstan, located in Central Asia. Hundreds of thousands of Central Asians live in Russia (the region was part of the former Soviet Union) and Central Asia has long been a source of easy recruitment for groups like ISIS. Central Asian workers form much of the Russian blue collar work force, often working in poor conditions with few benefits. Increasingly, many are leaving those jobs to fight abroad in Syria.
— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) April 4, 2017
Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov pushed back against suggestions that Russia’s involvement in Syria might have made the nation a target for retaliation.
“As far as the discussions by several media outlets that the terrorist act is a revenge for our Syria policy, this is cynical and despicable,” he said during a news conference Tuesday with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Erlan B. Abdyldaev.
Russia’s involvement in Syria is a hotly contested issue, but it’s not the nation’s only international source of tension. Relations with Ukraine, which disputes Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, are particularly sour, as are channels of communication with NATO, which has deployed troops to the Baltic states and Poland in order to deter “Russian aggression.” With so many efforts focused abroad, domestic concerns are falling through the cracks. While a terror decline in areas like Chechnya has been welcomed by Russians, the problem has clearly been redirected elsewhere.
Details are still emerging regarding the attack in St. Petersburg, but intelligence officials are looking to establish links between Dzhalilov and militant organizations. If verified, they would make him only one of many Russians drawn in by fringe movements, a problem that speaks more to Russia’s internal problems than it does to wider fears about extremism.