|A police patrol walks past New Year decorations in Volgograd on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Moscow, Dec. 31: “President Putin has been informed.”
The phrase, used by Russian news agencies, is becoming grimly familiar. After each terrorist attack, his subordinates give the Kremlin leader the news he least wants to hear in the run-up to his showcase Sochi Winter Olympics.
The toll from the successive-day suicide strikes in Volgograd rose to 34 today even as the Kremlin ordered Cossack volunteers, notorious for their nationalist leanings, to join police with dogs in hunting for terrorists who might still be at large in the city.
Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office, said Volgograd, the national symbol of Russia’s suffering and patriotism in the Second World War, when it was known as Stalingrad, had been “singled out by the terrorist leaders precisely because of its status in people’s minds”.
The city of one million people, situated 425 miles from Sochi, is a transport hub, with many connections to the North Caucasus.
In a New Year’s Eve address, Vladimir Putin said Russia would “fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation”, the Interfax news agency reported.
The remarks were Putin’s first public comments since the suicide bombings on Sunday and yesterday.
Putin, who waged war on Chechnya at the turn of the century, would probably like to carpet-bomb the entire North Caucasus region, but his hands are tied. At least until after the February Games, he has to play it more subtly, which he began doing with the release of political prisoners in an amnesty this month.
Armed raids on communities in the Caucasus, especially Dagestan, will almost certainly be stepped up, and the police and military will not be too selective as to whom they target. A favourite expression of Russian military types is that “you can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs”.
Even harmless Caucasian fruit traders in Moscow will fear police reprisals.
Mistakes have already been made. On Sunday, Voice of Russia, a pro-Kremlin radio station, tweeted a picture of a Dagestani woman it said was the station suicide bomber. Soon after, the woman appeared on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, and angrily denied the suggestion.
In October, after a bomb blast on a bus in Volgograd, the FSB, Russia’s secret service, had released what it said was the passport photograph of a suicide bomber, wearing a headscarf. It was later revealed to have been doctored, as citizens are not allowed to cover their heads for passport photos.
Widespread raids on the homes of suspects are expected to take place across the region.
FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov asked citizens to be understanding of the need for spot checks. “It’s a necessary measure,” he said.
As well as the Cossacks, conscripts from the interior ministry’s armed forces, often used for crowd control, will help to bolster the regular police forces. A government spokesperson said the New Year, the favourite holiday for many Russians, had been effectively cancelled. Volgograd has declared a period of mourning until January 3, with some politicians saying it should be extended across the whole country.
Police detained dozens of people on Tuesday in sweeps through the southern city. A man wounded when a bomber set off a blast in the city’s railway station on Sunday died overnight, taking the toll in that attack to 18. Regional governor Sergei Bazhenov said 16 died in a trolleybus bombing on Monday.
Russian investigators were working on the assumption that the two attacks were co-ordinated by suicide bombers sent by the Islamic militant leader and Chechen warlord Doku Umarov.
At the Games, security will be particularly tight. A security zone will stretch around Sochi, cars will be banned from the Olympic area, drones will fly overhead and boats will patrol the Black Sea. Tickets will be available in advance only to those who submit to detailed identity checks.
Alexander Zhukov, the Russian Olympic Committee chief, said no extra precautions were needed in Sochi because “everything necessary has already been done”.
Putin may receive help in intelligence matters from the Americans who, after the Boston Marathon bombing in April, discovered that they and the Russians had a common interest in thwarting terrorism emanating from Dagestan.
The Games may yet go well, but if they are ruined by a bloody terrorist attack, Putin’s revenge will likely be served cold and hard.