Russian President Vladimir Putin scored a major PR coup when he secured the 2014 winter Olympic Games for his own city of Sochi, but a spate of deadly terrorist attacks in the southern city of Volgograd, believed to be the work of once-pacified Islamic insurgents from the North Caucasus, threatens not only to ruin the fun, but leave a serious dent in the strongman’s image. His approval numbers have held up through a fierce opposition movement that emerged when he returned to the presidency in the spring of 2012, in part because he has been able to guarantee internal stability and cohesion that is rather appealing after the decade of economic and social unrest that came in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But the attacks by suicide bombers on public transportation in a city thought to be well clear of such insurgents, which have so far claimed 34 lives, will not only arouse the concern of the international community — perhaps chomping at the bit for an excuse other than Putin’s anti-gay politics to avoid the affair — but no doubt Putin’s constituents at home as well.
The Russian president, attuned to the sudden threat to his core political identity, responded with vitriol on New Year’s Eve, vowing that Russia would “fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation.” He’s thought to be dealing with Doku Umarov, chief of Russia’s Islamic insurgents who promised to step up attacks this summer, and specifically to target Sochi, which has a history of tension with Muslims going back to 1864, when the Russian army brutally deported the Muslim Circassians. With some $50 billion thought to be on the table for Olympic games security, the surprise here is not so much that Russia has patches of instability but that Putin, who fought a war with insurgents in Chechnya a decade ago, was unable to get in front of an attack that was essentially previewed by Umarov.
True to form, Putin has begun rounding up swaths of allegedly suspicious persons, and it’s fair to wonder if his pre-Olympics human rights makeover — the amnesty to political opponents surely intended to ease nerves abroad — might not be undone by his response to these attacks. Security is too fundamental to his appeal for the president not to be seen as acting aggressively. But if he goes too far in an effort to sanitize the domestic situation, he risks offering international critics (already skeptical on gay rights and the harsh treatment of Internet-based opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny) fresh fodder. The challenge for Putin, then, is to both contain this (literally) explosive situation without setting off alarm bells abroad. Even more than usual, the world is watching.