Monday afternoon’s bombing of the St. Petersburg subway, which killed 14 people and injured dozens, brought all-too-familiar images of panicked crowds and bodies in the rubble. But the biggest consequences of the bombing may be not in the attack itself but what it means for the short-term future of Russian politics.
Minutes after the explosion, Russian-language Twitter was swarming with conspiracy theories and dark accusations of President Vladimir Putin’s involvement. Prominent opposition figures such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Garry Kasparov immediately questioned the timing of the attacks, which came just days after massive protests engulfed the country.
Khodorkovsky quickly drew a parallel to the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities, which began the second Chechen war and helped consolidate Putin’s hold on power. For many in the opposition, the apartment bombings are Putin’s Reichstag fire: Although authorities blamed Chechen extremists, later investigations suggested that the government may have been involved in planting the explosives.
Conspiracies aside, if recent history is any guide, the metro bombing will have several predictable effects:
1) Putin will use the attacks to emphasize common ground with the West.
Western relations with Russia are at an all-time low, and the response in Europe has been muted. Russians quickly noted that European capitals conspicuously failed to light up public monuments in tribute to the St. Petersburg victims, as they had done after similar attacks in other countries.
But President Trump’s offhand response that these attacks are “happening all over the world” actually reinforces Putin’s message that Russia and the West are part of the same struggle. We are not just implacable foes, the Russian government can remind the United States. As he did after previous attacks, Putin will seek to position Russians as victims of the same enemy — and partners in a common fight against global terrorism.
It’s not clear whether Putin will be entirely successful, since the U.S.-Russia relationship may be beyond salvaging at this point, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try. After Trump phoned to share his condolences with Putin, the Kremlin released a statement noting that both leaders share the view that “terrorism is an evil that must be fought jointly.”
2) Putin can further marginalize the opposition.
Russian television personalities are linking last week’s protests to the bombing, portraying both as a general assault on Russian society and its values. Lumping together student protesters and suicide bombers may seem indefensible to Putin’s critics. But it’s politically convenient for the Russian government, which was caught off-guard by the protests and is busily patching up cracks in its public image.
As a bonus, Moscow can shift the conversation from fighting government corruption to protecting the nation, where the government’s rhetoric is on much firmer ground. One Duma member has proposed a temporary ban on political demonstrations as a response to the subway attack.
3) Putin will benefit from a short-term bump in popularity.
There has been a steady drumbeat of “unite behind the leader” rhetoric on Russian mass media. On social media, Putin’s critics grumble that repeated, high-profile attacks since Putin took power should not be a means to praise the Russian leader with a public opinion boost. How can we keep rewarding a man, they say, who has not been able to protect the country in his 17 years in office? But the rally-round-the-flag effect remains a powerful tool. It’s not clear whether the opposition’s contrarian message will resonate among the general public, which is still broadly supportive of Putin’s leadership.
4) Putin will have more leeway to crack down on terrorism suspects.
Russian security forces have wide scope in whom they can arrest, surveil and racially profile. Last year’s “Yarovaya Law” broadened the scope of government surveillance and introduced prison sentences for terrorism and “mass rioting” for citizens as young as 14. These attacks will only reinforce the trend and further restrict Russian civil liberties. Reportedly, police in Moscow and St. Petersburg have begun accosting men of “southern” appearance — a Russian euphemism for anyone who looks vaguely non-Russian enough to be a Muslim.
St. Petersburg itself — which until Monday had never experienced a terrorist attack under Putin’s rule — appeared resolute in the wake of the bombing. On Russian social media, residents offered car rides to strangers when the city’s major source of public transport came to a halt. But the resilience of the Russian people is unlikely to be matched by the resilience of Russian laws that protect civil freedoms in the wake of such attacks.
Seva Gunitsky is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto. His book “Aftershocks” was recently published by Princeton University Press.