(Repeats Tuesday report)
* Putin high in polls before 2018 presidential election
* But risks lie in Syria operation against militants
* Voters might decide Assad support makes them more
* Security might be used as pretext to ban protests - expert
By Denis Dyomkin and Christian Lowe
MOSCOW, April 4 Islamist militants have
targetted Russia many times before but Monday's bombing of a
metro train in St Petersburg was, for President Vladimir Putin,
personal: it happened in his native city on a day he was making
a visit back home.
The attack, which killed 14 people and wounded 50, is also a
test for one of Putin's most contentious policies - his decision
to launch a military intervention in Syria on the side of
President Bashar al-Assad.
Kremlin-watchers say the risk is that Russian voters could
decide, after seeing the destruction in St Petersburg, that the
Syrian operation is making them more vulnerable to such attacks
- not safer as Putin promised.
That would be problematic for Putin, who faced a new wave of
anti-corruption protests last month, before a presidential
election next year when he is expected to seek a fourth term.
The main suspect in the blast, Akbarzhon Jalilov, is a
Russian citizen from mainly Muslim Kyrgyzstan. No group has said
it was behind the attack but in the past Islamic State has
threatened to avenge Syria. It already said it was responsible
for bringing down a planeload of Russian tourists over Egypt's
Sinai peninsula in 2015, killing all 224 people on board.
If the St Petersburg bombing turns out to be Islamic State's
response to Russia's operation in support of Assad, "that would
signify the complete failure of Putin's gambit in Syria", said
Alfred Kokh, a former deputy prime minister under the late
president Boris Yeltsin.
"If you add to the mix the air disaster over Sinai ... then
the picture is looking very grim for the author of Russia's
participation in the Syria conflict," said Kokh.
However, it was not clear that ordinary Russian voters would
view it as a Putin failure. Opinion polls give him a high level
of support, and there was no discernable damage to his standing
after the plane bombing over Egypt.
"Now we feel a blow, trauma, but actually with us trauma
passes quite quickly," Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser,
told Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station.
"In a week's time it will be clear which way people are
inclining - towards what in the past was a customary demand for
more repression, or towards fatigue over this perpetual
situation where we are being sold security under various guises,
but we still don't have security."
Early indications are that the Kremlin will respond by
arguing that the St Petersburg attack underlines the importance
of the operation in Syria, which Russia says is primarily aimed
at crushing Islamist militants.
Another response may be to tighten security inside Russia
and launch a crackdown on all manifestations of hardline Islam.
That would make sense from the practical point of view of
stopping further attacks.
But the bombing could produce a side benefit for the
Kremlin. Russian officials were taken unawares last month when
thousands of people turned out in cities across Russia to
protest against alleged official corruption.
The organisers of the protests said they would intensify
their activity as the 2018 election approaches.
"Will the security threat be mobilised as a pretext to ban
demonstrations (in the interests of public safety, of course),
or more broadly as a reason to say 'now is not the time for
division'?" Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security, wrote
in business publication bne IntelliNews.
(Editing by David Stamp)