In the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which open in February, attention here has been on whether politicians and athletes should boycott the Games in protest over Russia’s increasingly harsh discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The horrific suicide bombing in Volgograd, in southern Russia, is a sudden reminder that the real threat to the Sochi Games is not a Western boycott but an Islamist terror attack. The blast at a railway station, which has killed at least 18 people, was not the first in Volgograd. A bus bombing in October killed five people. The Russians identified that bomber as a woman from Dagestan, one of a patchwork of small, mainly Muslim, autonomous republics in the Caucasus.
Worryingly for Russia, Dagestan is almost as unstable now as neighbouring Chechnya used to be in the 1990s, when the Russians battled a separatist insurgency there. Nor is Chechnya entirely pacified. In July, the leader of the Chechen rebel Islamists vowed to stop the Games from proceeding in Sochi, “on the bones of our ancestors, the bones of many dead Muslims”. So far, while nothing has happened in Sochi, the militants seem to have selected Volgograd as an alternative, perhaps because it is the nearest big city north of the Caucasus.
In the short term, Vladimir Putin will deal with the terrorist threat to his showcase Games by tightening a formidable range of security measures already in place round Sochi. Having proclaimed in advance that the Games would be “the safest Olympics ever”, he will want to see that pledge honoured.
Whether Russia can ever restore lasting peace in the North Caucasus is doubtful. It lacks the manpower to keep all the republics in lockdown simultaneously. Nor is the policy of periodically replacing obdurate local leaders with pliant ones effective.
In a sense, Russia is paying a delayed price for those colonial 19th-century wars – in which Tolstoy took part and wrote about – which have saddled Russia with lands that it can neither absorb nor relinquish. Regrettably, violence looks set to continue, even if not in Sochi.