Putin has repeatedly used terror attacks to tighten his grip on Russia

Putin has repeatedly used terror attacks to tighten his grip on Russia | INFBusiness.com

The March 22 terror attack on a Moscow concert hall was the deadliest in Russia for almost two decades. While the official investigation into the attack is still underway, it is already becoming increasingly clear that the Kremlin intends to ignore overwhelming evidence of Islamic State responsibility in order to accuse the Ukrainian authorities and their Western partners of orchestrating the killings.

This opportunistic attempt to blame Ukraine is fueling widespread speculation that the attack will lead to an escalation in Russia’s ongoing invasion. Based on past experience throughout Vladimir Putin’s 24-year reign, many also anticipate that the Russian dictator will use the atrocity to launch a further domestic crackdown.

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Putin first emerged on Russia’s political stage against a backdrop of terrorist attacks. When he was appointed Prime Minister in August 1999, Putin was largely unknown to the wider Russian public. Weeks later, the country was rocked by a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and southern Russia.

Putin’s hard-line response to these attacks saw him rise to national prominence. This paved the way for his presidential election win in early 2000, while also serving as justification for the Second Chechen War. Putin’s use of macho street slang was welcomed by many, including his famous pledge to flush terrorists “down the toilet.”

In October 2002, armed militants seized a theater in the center of Moscow and held almost one thousand audience members hostage. The ensuing standoff ended in tragedy when a botched intervention by Russian security forces led to the deaths of more than 100 hostages. This incident was to become another key turning point in the Putin era.

In the wake of the theater siege, Putin passed a series of anti-terrorism laws restricting civil liberties. He also significantly strengthened Kremlin control over the Russian media, making it far more difficult for journalists to report critically on the authorities. Crucially, Putin sought to frame the theater attack as an act of “international terrorism.” This played an important role in transforming international perceptions of Russia’s fight against Chechen separatism by equating it with the US-led “War on Terror.”

The largest terrorist attack of the Putin era came in September 2004, when militants stormed a school in Beslan during traditional ceremonies to mark the first day of the new academic year. This high-profile crisis ended in carnage and the deaths of more than 300 hostages. The Beslan massacre transformed the political landscape in Russia. In the wake of the tragedy, Putin moved to end the direct election of regional governors and return to a system of appointment by the Kremlin. This reversed what was widely regarded as one of the main democratic achievements of the Yeltsin era.

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Throughout the 2010s, Russia experienced sporadic suicide bombings across the country. In 2017, an attack on the St. Petersburg metro system led to new restrictions imposed on the popular Telegram messaging app, after an investigation concluded that the platform had been used by terrorists to coordinate their activities.

With today’s Russia already an increasingly authoritarian state, it is not clear what measures remain available to the Kremlin in response to the recent Moscow attack. Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the last vestiges of an independent press and civil society have been largely extinguished, while draconian legislation has criminalized any criticism of the war.

Some fear that the Moscow attack may spark a backlash against Russia’s large community of labor migrants, many of whom are Muslims from Central Asia. Meanwhile, some officials are already calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Given the scale of the attack and the rhetoric currently coming out of the Kremlin, most expect the response to be severe.

The March 22 attack in Moscow has seriously damaged Putin’s carefully crafted public image as a strongman ruler who offers his subjects security in exchange for restrictions on their personal freedoms. In order to reestablish his credentials, Putin is likely to target his enemies in Ukraine and the West. In line with past practice, he will also look to tighten his grip inside Russia itself.

Olivia Yanchik is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Source: euractiv.com

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