Explosion at Moscow Airport Sparks Terror Fears

Ivan Sekretarev / AP

The scene inside the arrivals hall at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport is like a battlefield: heavy smoke stings the eyes, bodies still in heaps. By the wrecked Asia café, at least 15 corpses are jumbled together in a tangle. “There were many people with terrible wounds; many had lost limbs,” says 27-year-old Alexander Dimchenko, a taxi driver who says he was just 10 yards from the blast but was saved by a concrete pillar. “We loaded bodies on luggage trolleys … The bomb was stuffed with metal that ripped up human bodies.” The latest casualty count stands at 35 killed and 168 injured; Anna Mishutina, a celebrated playwright from Ukraine, was among those killed, according to her friend Natalia Antonova.  The head of a dark-skinned man police believe to be the bomber has been found at the epicenter of the explosion in the public area of the airport’s arrivals hall. 

As Russian television showed images of Domodedovo’s bright international-baggage-claim hall strewn with debris and darkened with smoke, many Muscovites revisited the sinking feeling they experienced less than a year ago when more than 40 people were killed by female suicide bombers on the Moscow Metro. For many of the capital’s citizens, the beige-and-red interiors of Domodedovo are almost as familiar as the Metro itself.
Moscow’s Domodedovo airport is a symbol of the new prosperity brought to Russians under Vladimir Putin’s rule, their post-Soviet freedom to travel—and, as today’s explosion proved all too grimly, the Russian state’s failure to bring security to its people.

A dozen years ago, Russians signed up to a clear, if unspoken, deal with the Kremlin. In September 1999, a series of unexplained bomb attacks demolished apartment buildings in Moscow and south Russia, killing 293 people. Vladimir Putin, then a relatively unknown former spook, was promoted to prime minister on the promise to protect Russia from secessionist terrorists from the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Within weeks Russian troops were rolling into Chechnya, and Putin’s political career was launched. The bottom line of the deal Putin offered Russia was this: voters surrendered many of the freedoms they had enjoyed during the chaotic Yeltsin years in exchange for protection. Many Russian voters were only too happy to accept everything that followed—the rise of the Kremlin, Putin’s squashing of the oligarchs, the crackdown on independent media, and the end of local elections—because they believed that the state would fulfill its primary role: to guard the security of its citizens.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. Chechnya itself was quickly subdued by the ruthless but effective expedient of arming one of the rebel groups and using it to torture, murder, and intimidate its way to victory. But the Kadyrov clan’s victory in Chechnya, and the broader Russian-enforced peace across the North Caucasus, didn’t bring the terror to an end. Instead terror and Islamic radicalism metastasized like a cancer across the North Caucasus and infected the volatile neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia.
The immediate result was that the Putin era has been punctuated by a steady drumbeat of terrorist outrages—from the Moscow theater siege in 2002 to the Beslan school massacre in 2004, to the Moscow Metro bombings last spring that left a combined 495 dead. But apart from those high-profile attacks, smaller terror is an almost weekly occurrence in the south Russian borderlands with the North Caucasus. Counting just the incidents with double-digit fatalities over the last 12 months, bombs destroyed a racetrack in Nalchik, a market in Vladikavkaz, a cultural center in Stavropol, and a military base in Buinaksk. Terrorists from the Caucasus derailed a high-speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, attacked a power plant, and bombed numerous police stations across the region. Effectively, the Kremlin is fighting a low-intensity war in south Russia. But if a decade ago Russia was at war with Chechen rebels with a clearly defined set of goals focused on the independence of Chechnya, now the enemy is a shadowy plethora of tiny Islamist groups with a range of grievances against the Russian state, from blood feud to plain-vanilla ethnic nationalism.

One thing is clear, though: the authorities’ methods of fighting the insurgency—ranging from kidnapping of family members of suspected militants to extrajudicial executions, well documented by human-rights groups—aren’t working. More, there is evidence that terror groups, some driven simply by the desire for revenge, have a covert network in place to facilitate a series of attacks. “There is very well-concealed network of terrorists with explosives in Moscow,” says Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB colonel who now heads the Russian Duma’s Security Committee. “Terrorists are helped in Moscow by this underground network. I believe that a terror attack like this, using a bomb that weighs several kilos, could not be arranged without a web of underground supporters.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the decade of terror is that Russian voters have signally failed to blame their leaders for their lack of security. On the contrary, Putin built his tough-guy image on such swaggering promises as “rubbing out the terrorists in the s--thouse.” Polls regularly show that Putin is more trusted on security issues than his baby-faced, handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Though the failure to bring lasting peace to the Caucasus is Putin’s, it’s likely the more liberal Medvedev whose ratings will suffer from continued terror. “If Russia is hit with another wave of terror attacks or armed conflict, people will look to Putin,” says Alexei Grazhdankin of the Moscow-based Levada Center. “He is seen as a strong defender of the Russian state.” This evening Medvedev announced that he would be cancelling a visit to the Davos conference to deal with the bombing.
Putin’s toughness is no mere rhetoric—at his instigation, a decade of very hands-on violence has been applied to the Caucasus, with little result. No one can reasonably blame the Kremlin for tonight’s appalling bomb attack on Moscow’s busiest airport. But it's equally clear that Putin has built a police state that’s good at cracking down on dissent but bad at delivering security—not to mention honoring its basic contract with the people who surrendered their freedoms in exchange for a quiet life.