MOSCOW (Reuters) - The armed militancy Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed to crush on his rise to power a decade ago sent the Kremlin a defiant message on Monday, carrying out Moscow’s worst attack in six years and highlighting the failures of Russia’s policy in it most turbulent region.
The response to two blasts that killed at least 38 people on the Moscow metro will be a important indicator of how Russia’s ruling tandem will approach violent unrest in the heavily Muslim North Caucasus, a crucial hurdle to the country’s security and success.
The attack could also play into political intrigue ahead of the presidential election in 2012, when Putin — still seen as Russia’s top leader after steering Dmitry Medvedev into the Kremlin in 2008 — could seek a return to the Kremlin.
In a previous stint as prime minister, Putin led Russia into its second post-Soviet war against rebels in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya after a series of deadly apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities.
Putin at one point vowed that rebels would be tracked down and killed even “in the outhouse” — typical of the tough talk that bolstered his popularity during his 2000-2008 presidency.
“This is a direct affront to Vladimir Putin, whose entire rise to power was built on his pledge to crush the enemies of Russia,” Jonathan Eyal of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute said of the bombings on Monday.
The Kremlin’s response could be tougher tactics against the North Caucasus militant groups that have tested the Kremlin’s counter-terrorism policies for a generation.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility, but officials steered suspicion towards the North Caucasus.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said the attacks were carried out by female suicide bombers — a method that has been used by Chechen rebels — and the Federal Security Service (FSB) chief said they were likely from the North Caucasus.
Rights groups say crackdowns in the turbulent region only fuel the anger that feeds the insurgency nearly a decade after the war Putin ousted Chechnya’s separatist government.
President Dmitry Medvedev has lately underscored a need to tackle underlying causes such as corruption, poverty and abuse of authority.
But Matthew Clements, Eurasia analyst at IHS Jane’s Information Group, said the attacks on Monday could strengthen the hand of the hardliners in Russia’s ruling elite.
That could lead to tougher tactics that “could involve a stepping away from the dual approach of pursuing social and economic development alongside security action.”
Analysts also say more robust action could deter Muslim communities on the receiving end from providing the vital intelligence such a counter-insurgency campaign would need.
The Kremlin’s record in the North Caucasus had been “quite counter-productive,” said Galina Yemelianova of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at Birmingham University.
She told Reuters it “has pushed the insurgency out of Chechnya. It is increasingly multi-ethnic and is spreading to other parts of the region through underground jihadist networks which have become more and more active.”
Putin, who cut short a Siberia trip on Monday to return to Moscow, vowed that “terrorists will be destroyed.”
Medvedev said Russia would act “without compromise” to root out terrorists “to the end,” but urged authorities to respect human rights. But analysts say such concerns may be cast aside as the Kremlin tries to avert further attacks.
Kremlin critics also fear the attack could spark a broader crackdown that could strengthen government opponents already pushed to the political fringes.
“We know that under cover of the fight against terrorism, repression and pressure on the opposition will be strengthened,” Solidarity, a group linking prominent liberal opponents of the Kremlin, said in a statement.
After a series of deadly attacks in 2004, Putin pushed through electoral reforms that tightened Kremlin control over politics and drew accusations of backtracking on democracy.
Since then, violence attributed to separatist rebels had been limited mostly to the North Caucasus, a string of provinces on Russia’s southern border. The attacks on Monday were the deadliest in Moscow since February 2004.
Intended or not, the location of the first bombing on Monday sent a message to Russia’s security apparatus: Lubyanka metro station shares its name with the headquarters of the FSB, the main domestic successor to the Soviet KGB, which is metres away.
“It is astounding that the FSB was incapable of thwarting such an operation. Of course one cannot prevent everything. But the infiltration by the police of Chechen groups in Moscow has been extremely poor,” Eyal said.
Reporting by William Maclean, Editing by Ralph Boulton