There are reasons why the West is not responding to the St Petersburg terrorist attack like those in London or Nice

Russia remains a brutalised society and the official reaction tends to be more akin to revenge than to justice. This makes western empathy harder

James Nixey
Wednesday 05 April 2017 08:01
Explosion at St Petersburg metro station

Russia is a victim of terrorism. At least as much as any western country. Airport bombings, airplane bombings, theatres and schools, overground and now underground train bombings. Russia has had its share. The Houses of Parliament, the Brandenburg Gate and other iconic buildings should be emblazoned with the Russian flag in sympathy and solidarity (although they won’t be).

Suspicion initially fell on Russia’s own North Caucasus republics – an Achilles heel which has often proved the source in the past. The latest information suggests the opening up of a new front however, with the suspect apparently coming from southern Kyrgyzstan (though having lived in Russia for about five years). At this stage, all such information should be examined with very hard eyes as the authorities are not above pinning the blame on the nearest non-Russian-looking person.

If true however, this is a worrying development for Russia, which hosts between 3-4 million seasonal migrant workers a year from the wider Central Asian region – the largest migrant intake in the world after the USA. But the Kyrgyzstani element should not be a complete surprise either. The June 2016 Istanbul airport suicide bombers are also thought to have originated from the North Caucasus and Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan. Clearly the region requires a reassessment by all major powers. The West in particular has largely ignored it since the pull-out from Afghanistan.

Russia President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at scene of blast in St Petersburg

Although Russia does have form in intervening in Central Asia, it has been nothing like the bull-in-a-china-shop approach that it has employed in Syria – or indeed in the North Caucasus. In fact, Kyrgyzstan is an example of Russian military restraint. During the 2010 fighting largely between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Russia chose not to send in troops – although it did have a hand in choosing the Kyrgyz government that came next.

However – and there does need to be a ‘however’ in any honest assessment of the overall terrorist threat to Russia – in the search for solutions it is impossible to avoid Russia’s own actions at home and abroad as an explanation – not, of course, as justification.

Just as it is nonsensical to deny the causal link between the UK’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq and London’s own underground bombing atrocity in July 2005, the broader link between Russia’s actions towards Islamic peoples and yesterday’s act of terror can only be disputed by those with a political agenda – those for whom doctrine and a powerful state is more important than human life.

In terms of approaches and responses to terror, regardless of its point of origin, Russia and the West differ greatly. This explains the absence of flags on the Brandenburg Gate (or indeed on Facebook). Of course it does not mean that western citizens have less sympathy for the dead of St Petersburg than for the dead of Nice or Westminster Bridge – that would be racist. But there are two explanations for the different reactions.

First, some may find it hard to distinguish between the unsavoury geopolitics Russia prosecutes beyond its borders and its 150 million-strong population. But the only fault that can be lain at door of Russia’s citizens is that too many accept the Kremlin account of Russia’s actions abroad at face value – and even that is somewhat excusable as they are force-fed that version through state-directed television.

The second reason for the international response being different towards St Petersburg than it was towards, say, Nice is that Russia remains a brutalised society and the official reaction tends to be more akin to revenge than to justice. This makes western empathy harder.

Meanwhile, Russia will face more terrorism in the months and years to come – and quite possibly with greater frequency, not least due to fighters who originate from Central Asia and Russia’s southern Muslim republics returning from the war in Syria – some 2,000 Russians from the North Caucasus have been fighting there according to some estimates, and some will surely return over time and with violent intent. But terror attacks in Russia will also increase because the traditional reaction from authorities – and particularly autocracies – is to use atrocities to tighten the screws. This is especially convenient in order to show strength in the run-up to Russia’s presidential elections in March next year. But such is the nature of terrorism – its ubiquity, and its relative ease to perpetrate – that tightening tends to have the effect of squeezing terrorists elsewhere much as it did when Russia bombed Chechnya into submission in the late 1990s. But not necessarily much further afield: as the world’s largest country, Russia contains far too many targets over too wide an area to realistically protect.

James Nixey is Head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House

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