For most Russians who get their news from state-controlled television, this morning's subway bombings in Moscow were a bolt from the blue. The official message was that Chechnya was pacified—and that the reign of terror imposed there by Vladimir Putin's lieutenant, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, had put an end to terrorist attacks forever. But the blasts at Moscow's Lubyanka and Park Kultury stations—which killed at least 38 people—are the clearest possible evidence that the Kremlin's tactics haven't worked. Far from being pacified, the North Caucasus republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan remain dangerously unstable.
The message from the terrorists could not have been clearer: by striking at the Lubyanka metro, just yards from the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB in Russian), Prime Minister Putin's alma mater (when it was known as the KGB), they are sending a signal that they still have the capacity to strike at the very heart of power in Russia's capital. According to FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov, the bombings were carried out by two women. That tactic is terrifyingly familiar from attacks on Moscow between 1998 and 2004. (Two Chechen women blew themselves up on the Moscow metro in 2004, killing 50 people, and women terrorists played a key role in the Moscow theater siege of 2002.)
But over the last year, Russian media have been playing down violence in the Caucasus, which has been spiraling out of control. This attack is the first to hit Moscow in five years, but the truth is that there have been 15 suicide bombings in South Russia since 2009, most dramatically the truck bombing of a police station in Dagestan last August that killed 20. Police in Ingushetia have fought running battles with radical Islamic insurgents for the last year, and in February they scored an apparent victory in killing 20 rebels, including Anzor Astimirov, the leader of a radical Wahhabi group from Kabardino-Balkaria. There is speculation that yesterday's attack could be the rebels' revenge for that killing.
It's hard to overstate how badly the attacks have shocked Muscovites who bought into the official propaganda that Putin had brought peace to the Caucasus. This morning, pedestrians hurrying away from the scene talked of never taking the metro again. One elderly man, who declined to give his name, said "the Caucuses Emirate sent [the powers that be] a message"—a message that radical Islamic rebels, known colloquially by Russians as the Emirate, were not beaten. Meanwhile, central parts of Moscow resembled a war zone, with helicopters circling overhead, large areas of the city around the bomb sites closed to traffic, and many people staying at home in fear. Mobile-phone signals were jammed by police who feared that more bombs could be detonated by a phone call.
Opposition politicians fear that the attacks will quickly become an excuse to strangle a gathering political thaw encouraged by President Dmitry Medvedev. "Russian authorities will use every excuse to shut down independent movements in Russia," says Yulia Latynina, an independent analyst. "I fear that the opposition protest planned for March 31 will be beaten back by police or [the pro-Kremlin youth group] Nashi." The Kremlin certainly has a track record of using terror as a justification for political crackdowns: in 2004, after a spate of attacks, Putin scrapped elections for regional governors. Tatyana Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch, says that the authorities' reaction will be a bellwether of how far Medvdev has managed to change the system. "This is going to be a test for Medvedev's liberal views—hopefully he will let his people speak their mind out on March 31," she said.
Putin himself appeared on Russian television today looking visibly angry and vowed to bring the culprits to justice and stamp out terror. But Putin came to power on the same promise in 2000 after four horrific bombings in Moscow and southern Russia demolished apartment buildings and left more than 300 dead. A decade later, his words ring a little hollow—all the more so because the tactics Russian police and the FSB have used against Islamic rebels have brought terror to the local population. Russian police death squads have admitted tosystematic torture of suspected rebels and their families. And according to Human Rights Watch, more than 20,000 people—mostly young men—have been "disappeared" by the security forces since the supposed end of the Chechen war in 2002. Kadyrov's troops have even been filmed torturing their own men to maintain a medieval brand of discipline.
What's not clear is what Putin can do to stop the attacks. As Israel found before its security barrier, it's almost impossible to secure a city against suicide bombers—especially if they have access to high explosives. Unlike failed bombers in London and more recently on transatlantic aircraft, this morning's attackers didn't have to rely on homemade explosives but instead used around a kilo of TNT, which is more compact and more devastatingly reliable than homemade fertilizer explosives.
Unlike Israel, though, Putin does not have the option of building a wall across the North Caucasus to keep out bombers. The likely reaction will expanded surveillance powers for the FSB and stop-and-search powers for the police—thereby cutting off a fledgling civil-society movement to crack down on corruption and institute wholesale reforms of both those institutions. Most worryingly of all for the Kremlin, if the state continues to fail to provide security to its citizens, popular protests will only grow—putting opposition groups on collision course with a strengthened police.
Correction (published March 31, 2010): This story originally misidentified the affiliations of Tatyana Lokshina and Yulia Latynina. And Human Rights Watch says over 5,000 people have disappeared, not 20,000, as reported earlier. NEWSWEEK regrets the errors.