TerrorismVolgograd under lockdown as Winter Games security worries grow

Published 31 December 2013

Volgograd has been placed under tight security after a Monday suicide bombing on trolleybus killed sixteen, one day after seventeen people were killed at a train station. For the Russian government, the attacks represent the worst possible scenario: an orchestrated bombing campaign during the run-up to the Winter Olympics – and during the games themselves — in a region too big, and with too many soft targets, to be secured effectively. Such a broad and well-coordinated terror campaign will overshadow – and might even seriously disrupt — the biggest international event on Russian soil since the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

President Vladimir Putin ordered a security clampdown in Volgograd and across the country after a second suicide bombing in the city in as many days. The number of dead in the two explosions now stands at thirty-three, with more than 200 injured.

The two bombings undermined the claim by the Russian government that the security situation in the country is under control five weeks before the opening of the Winter Games in the city of Sochi.

The first explosion occurred inside a train station, while the second occurred on a crowded trolleybus.

Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for Russia’s main investigative agency, said Monday’s explosion involved a bomb similar to the one used in Sunday’s attack at the city’s main railway station.

That confirms the investigators’ version that the two terror attacks were linked,” Markin said in a statement. “They could have been prepared in one place.”

The Guardian reports that for the Russian government, the attacks represent the worst possible scenario: an orchestrated bombing campaign during the run-up to the Winter Olympics – and during the games themselves — in a region too big, and with too many soft targets, to be secured effectively.

Such a broad and well-coordinated terror campaign will overshadow – and might even seriously disrupt — the biggest international event on Russian soil since the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

There is little doubt that this is precisely the goal of the Chechen and Dagestani Islamist rebels. In July, the Chechen jihadist leader Doku Umarov distributed a video in which he warned that his group would use “maximum force” to stop the Games. Analysts note that sporadic terror attacks have hit home since, but nothing on the scale of the bombings n Sunday and Monday.

It is not clear whether Russia would ask for the support of other countries in securing the Games.

At the Pentagon, Army Colonel Steve Warren said he was “not aware of any requests for assistance from either the Russians or the Olympic Committee.” He added that the U.S. military has “a long history of working with national organizing committees to assist with Olympic security whenever it’s requested,” though such a collaboration appears highly unlikely given current mutual mistrust.

The Sunday attack on the train station was carried out by a woman whose father and husband were killed fighting the Russian army in Chechnia. The Russian authorities said that the Monday attack on the trolleybus was likely carried out by Dr. Pavel Pechenkin, whose body was recovered from the wreckage. Pechenkin hails from the Mari republic on the Volga River, 500 miles east of Moscow. He converted to Islam a few years ago and went to Dagestan to join local militants, where he came to attention of Russian law enforcement.

The Guardian notes that shockwaves from the attacks have rippled outward, as they did after earlier large-scale terrorist attacks in Russia — in Moscow (1999, 2002, and 2010), Budyonnovsk (1995), and Beslan (2004).

Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, has an important symbolic value in Russia as the theater where the tide of the Second World War was turned. Between August and November 1942 the Wehrmacht’s Sixth Army surrounded the city and pounded it mercilessly day and night. The Germans calculated that the city would fall either as a result of the relentless military assault, or because the millions of citizens and their Red Army defenders would starve without supplies.

The Nazis miscalculated, though. In late November 1942 the Red Army launched an unexpected and brilliantly executed counter-attack, encircling the Sixth Army. Tens of thousands of German soldiers, unprepared for the harsh Russian winter and running out of food, fuel, and ammunition, died. In January 1943, ignoring Hitler’s orders, the commander of the Sixth Army, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, surrendered.

North Caucasian jihadist Web sites, in an effort to maximize the psychological impact of the suicide bombings, were quick to point out on Monday that Volgograd has been chosen for Sunday and Monday’s attacks because of its obvious symbolic value. The jihadists’ message was unmistaken, if not explicitly stated: the Germans may have failed in their campaign seventy years ago, but we will not.

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