The Volgograd Attacks: Taking the Long View

The impact on Russia and beyond.

So far, there have been no follow-ups to the terrorist attacks in Volgograd. (Reports of an explosive device being hurled at police in a Moscow suburb which killed one officer and severely injured another are not, at present, being considered as signs of an ongoing terrorist campaign.) But Russian officials are not holding their breath. With so many security resources devoted to keeping the Sochi Olympic games safe from incidents, the government's ability to deter attacks in other parts of Russia has been stretched thin. A steady drumbeat of attacks -- particularly in areas which are ‘staging points’ for people to go to Sochi (Volgograd is one such transport hub connecting the rest of Russia to the North Caucasus) -- would create a climate of fear throughout the country and overshadow the 2014 Winter Games, which Vladimir Putin hopes will showcase his vision of a resurgent, post-Soviet Russia.

In the short term, the Volgograd attacks are likely to lead to a renewed law enforcement effort and a resurgence in a campaign of ‘direct action’ against terrorist suspects. In Dagestan, Russian special forces located and "liquidated" Marat Shikhshaidov, the supposed mastermind behind the 2010 Moscow metro suicide attacks. In the aftermath of the bombings in Volgograd, increased patrols and investigations in the Volgograd region have swept up some 700 people in police dragnets. And while many of those detained may not have any connections to the attacks themselves, Russian law enforcement officials claimed that they have confiscated illegal weapons and drugs and detained illegal migrants. The use of neighborhood auxiliaries and Cossacks to augment the police presence, however, may create problems, given that non-ethnic Russians and ‘outsiders’ may be targeted as suspects, thus contributing to rising tensions between ethnic Russians and non-Russian citizens of the Federation.

In the longer term, two questions emerge. The first is whether the terrorist attacks, plus lackluster economic performance during 2013, will provide the impetus to dismiss the current government headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and lead to a reshuffling of the cabinet. Putin, who has previously hinted that he is considering yet another round of regional government reform (which would potentially break apart some of the regional power bases) by transferring some functions downward to municipalities and local communities while strengthening the federal districts (who are headed by plenipotentiaries he appoints), may repeat what he did a decade ago when the terrorist attack in Beslan provided the pretext for abolishing direct election of regional governors.

The second question is whether the Volgograd attacks will impact Russian foreign policy. In the wake of the bombings, many people recalled the reported leaked comments of Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar to Putin during his summer 2013 visit to Moscow, that if Russia accommodated Saudi preferences on Syria by abandoning its support of the Bashar al-Assad government, the Saudis would use their influence with Chechen and other jihadi groups to guarantee the security of the Sochi Games. Whether this was an accurate description of the actual conversation or not, there remains a widespread belief in the Russian foreign policy community that Saudi Arabia actively supports Salafist groups who target Russian interests. Nevertheless, Russia and Saudi Arabia have continued their conversations about the future of the Middle East, talks fueled, in part, by Saudi concerns about the unreliability of the Obama administration's guarantees and public statements. Even when profoundly disagreeing with Russian policy, the Saudis have recognized that Moscow consistently acts in accordance with its statements. Putin and Bandar held a follow-on meeting in early December to discuss both the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program. According to reports, the Saudi and Russian sides narrowed some of their differences on these issues (for instance, both apparently accept that there can only be a political solution to the crisis in Syria that comes about through a negotiated process) but significant gaps remain between Riyadh's position and Moscow's. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia, in seeking to diversify its strategic relationships, seems open to working more constructively with Russia.