Terrorist attacks in Russia are nothing new, but a bombing in St. Petersburg is. And Monday’s bombing in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, certainly had a symbolic element: the attack took place during a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the city where he was born and raised. It was a perfect success for the bombers. Putin was embarrassed on his home turf.
Whether the Islamic State group or the Chechen underground was behind it, it’s clear to everyone that the attack that murdered Russian civilians had an Islamist element to it. Putin likes to compare Islamist terrorist to Nazism. At the time it wrote its considerable chapter in the war between the Soviets and the Nazis, St. Petersburg was called Leningrad. We can assume that the St. Petersburg bombing will only bolster Putin’s belief that Islamists and Nazis are cut from the same bloody cloth. Putin has every reason to fear a “Muslim spring” in Russia.
Since Russia first intervened in the Syrian civil war in September 2015, Putin has opted to present himself as the one who is leading the global war against terrorism. Former U.S. President Barack Obama left the field to Putin, and the latter stepped in to fill the vacuum the Americans left behind. Since then, Russia has become the victim of a number of attacks, but nearly all of them took place in the unstable republics in the Caucasus. The Russian security services have managed to thwart terrorist attacks in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, exposing the terrorist networks behind them.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has survived, Hezbollah has won, and Iran has pushed deep into Syria and Iraq. Russia’s Sunni Muslims, and there are a lot of them — comprising 15% of the country’s population, who worship at over 10,000 mosques — don’t like the link between Mother Russia and the Shiite axis. Russia’s ties to Iran at Saudi Arabia’s expense also open the door to terrorist attacks.
Recently, opposition to Putin in Russia has been on the rise, but the bombing Monday will presumably strengthen him. An external enemy has always united and fortified the Russian spirit. Russia also marked gains in the international arena, with the European Union and Paris expressing solidarity following the attack.