Staunton, December 29 – For the third time during a Putin election campaign – the first was in 1999 and the second in 2004 – there has been a terrorist act in Russia, this time in St. Petersburg; and Vladimir Putin has responded by positioning himself as the defender of the nation and demanding the security forces take no prisoners.
Two things are striking about the Petersburg action. On the one hand, it comes on the heels of Putin’s repeated and much-ballyhooed insistence that he has defeated the Islamic State in Syria and suppressed anti-Moscow militants in the North Caucasus. And on the other, it is only the second terrorist attack in Russia this past year.
And that conjunction has led some to recall the way in which Putin personally was involved in the 1999 bombings and to discuss the ways in which counter-terrorist has always been a strong suit for the Kremlin leader and may prove to be again (caucasustimes.com/ru/zhizni-620-chelovek-unesli-tri-prezidentskie-kompanii-v-rossii/ andecho.msk.ru/blog/oreh/2119310-echo/).
Perhaps the most thoughtful discussion of the relationship between this most recent terrorist act and Putin’s re-election effort has been offered by Moscow commentator Igor Yakovenko in Yezhednevny zhurnal (ej.ru/?a=note&id=31972) who points out that the authorities didn’t view the Petersburg act as terrorism but Putin demanded that they do so.
Putin’s demand that the authorities “’take no prisoners’” was clearly intended to please his “core electorate” because it “corresponds to the macho image with which he ran in the first presidential campaign in 2000.” But it has other values for the Kremlin leader as well, the commentator says.
A dead terrorist is useful because it shows the state can defeat him, but he or she is also useful in that a dead terrorist can’t talk and challenge the official version of events, thus allowing the authorities to define the situation as they like without regard to the facts of the case in order to promote Putin’s election.
Indeed, for purposes of the campaign, any information from prisoners “would only interfere,” Yakovenko says, because Putin’s chief opponent is not the terrorists but “his own population.” He needs the freedom to lie and killing those involved in such actions is the best way to secure that benefit.
After the April 2017 attack in the Petersburg metro, many people speculated on who might have been responsible and even asked whether it might have been “a provocation organized by the authorities themselves” -- just as many did in the fall of 1999 after the apartment bombings were blamed on the Chechens.
This week, no one has offered any evidence that the authorities were involved, “but nonetheless such a hypothesis has spread through the social networks.” Those who are doing so are not obsessed with conspiracies but rather reflecting their experience with Putin and his KGB comrades.
“When a terrorist act happens in London, only a seriously ill individual could accuse Teresa May or Elizabeth II in its organization, and even the harshest opponents of Macron or Merkel would accuse them of organizing terrorist actions.” They might be accused of ineffectiveness or incompetence but not or being behind them.
In Putin’s case, the situation is different, Yakovenko says. His reputation “consists of two components – his own actions and the history of that organization he is so proud to have been part of. And thanks to this ‘composite’ reputation … Putin will be among the first suspects of any major crime committed on the planet.”