Aurel Braun is a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
Russia is no stranger to terrorist attacks. The horrors of 129 hostages killed in a Moscow theatre attacked by Chechen terrorists in 2002; the blast on the Moscow subway in 2004 that extinguished 39 lives; more than 300 hostages, among them many children, who died as the result of an attack on a school in Beslan; or the 34 people killed by suicide bombers in Volgograd in 2013 – all indelibly etched into the memory of Russian citizens. So the terrorist attack in the St. Petersburg subway on April 3, gruesome as it was, is hardly a novel development. But the Russian government may resort to a particularly harsh response.
From the perspective of the Kremlin, this week's attack is different. First, there have not been significant terrorist attacks within Russia itself for several years, and this has only reinforced the government's contention that it has been successfully fighting terrorism while assertively restoring Russia's international status. Second, this attack occurred in St. Petersburg, which not only escaped terrorist attacks in the past but happens to be President Vladimir Putin's hometown. Third, there is the personal affront: The attack occurred on the very day Mr. Putin was visiting the city.
Consequently, this terrorist attack, apparently perpetrated by an Islamist Russian citizen originally from Kyrgyzstan, was also an act of brazen defiance. It challenged the carefully cultivated image of regime success. If terrorists can strike the President's hometown on the day of his visit, he no longer appears invincible. That, in turn, also conveys the message that the Putin regime is not invulnerable.
Yet seeming invulnerability has been a crucial element of the regime's ability to deter opposition forces by impressing on them the hopelessness of challenging the government – one that has become increasingly repressive, has continually shrunk the zone of democracy and has not hesitated to use brutal means to enforce its rule. We have seen political opponents killed (though the government has denied responsibility), with various media, including CNN, reporting that since the U.S. election, eight prominent Russians have met mysterious deaths.
In the past, the Kremlin has often used terrorist attacks as an excuse for more repression to cover its shortcomings. A government that is so alert to any possible challenges, which has moved with such alacrity to crush actual or potential opposition, now has additional reasons to revert to its modus operandi.
First, despite Mr. Putin's claimed popularity, the Russian economy is in wretched shape – one-dimensional, uncompetitive, corrupt and stagnant. The tacit "social contract," according to which the Russian population forgoes political freedom in exchange for economic improvement and security, is badly frayed.
Second, Russia's external "successes" have come at a high price in terms of Russian lives and treasure. If it is shown that there is a direct link between this terrorist attack in St. Petersburg and Islamists in Syria, the Russian people may conclude that this is blowback. It is no wonder, then, that the Russian government has not been eager to suggest any links to Islamist movements in the Middle East; it would be safer, from a domestic politics perspective, to classify this terrorist attack as a local manifestation rather than retaliation.
Third, the Putin regime was shocked by the mass protests by young people, outraged by corruption, in scores of Russian cities on March 26. Though the Kremlin moved quickly to suffocate new demonstrations and arrested the key opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, it is keenly aware of the potential for an escalation of protests and a challenge to its legitimacy. In fact, Mr. Navalny's investigations of corruption have been potent and persuasive. Moreover, they reached right into the centre of the Kremlin by showing that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the supposed moderate liberal icon in whom the previous U.S. administration had invested so much hope, is not very different from the rest of the Russian kleptocracy and has acquired vast personal wealth through stealth.
In sum, the Putin regime, despite the appearance of external success and domestic popularity, has suffered an egregious blow to its image of invincibility that may be quite deleterious to its legitimacy. Consequently, there is reason to worry that the tragedy in St. Petersburg may be used by the Kremlin in a manner that is all too familiar to those who have any hopes left for democracy in Russia: more denunciations of plots – foreign and domestic – followed by further repression.