Putin knows he has to fight Islamist terror. But the Syrian involvement may have done more harm than good
After the recent terrorist attack on the Saint Petersburg underground, the Archbishop of Moscow published a short but eloquent statement which sums up the Christian response concisely and eloquently: “Together with all faithful Catholics and believers of other faiths and religions, I turn to God with a burning prayer for deliverance of Russia and the world from the curse of terrorism.”
For the last few years the “curse of terrorism” has not made itself felt on Russian soil, though in the decades before that, the Russians have suffered more than almost anyone from terrorist attacks. Let’s not forget the Beslan school siege in 2004, nor the Moscow theatre hostage takings in 2002, or the more recent shooting down of a Russian airliner over Sinai in 2015. At the same time, we have to remember the context of these outrages (which is not to make excuses for them): namely Russia’s wars in Chechnya, and its recent involvement in Syria. Russia can with good reason see itself on the front line in the struggle against global Islamic terror. In this light, incidents like the child beheading in Moscow in 2016 seem even more sinister.
It is thought that the perpetrator of the latest outrage is a Russian citizen born in one of the former Soviet republics in central Asia. This should remind us that the Russian Federation has a large population of people from the former Soviet territories in central Asia, as well as a large Russian-speaking population that is either professedly Muslim or from a Muslim background. The first category may account for 5% of the population, but if one includes those who are “ethnically” Muslim, that is descended from people who were once Muslim, and in some way culturally Muslim still without being religiously observant, the percentage may well be much higher. This latter grouping may well represent a fertile constituency for those who are looking to radicalise them. No wonder the Daily Telegraph is asking: “Is Islamist terror returning to Russia?” Did it in fact ever go away?
Can the response from Mr Putin and his government, whatever it turns out to be, have a positive effect? No one so far has crafted a successful strategy in dealing with terrorism of this type, and it is doubtful, to say the least, that Putin will succeed where others have failed. But given the demographic situation of Russia, and the sleeping giant of its Muslim population, the situation does not look good. Things may well get worse before they get better.
Mr Putin has fought several wars but none has resulted in outright victory, the war in Syria being the latest example. Syria is now relatively quiet, but hardly stable, and certainly not on the road to recovery. The Assad regime may well have bought itself some time, as it did once before, but in the long term its future must be bleak.
The nightmare of terrorism has certainly not gone away, and this latest attack in Saint Petersburg shows us the failure of the Putin strategy in Syria and in the “near abroad”. After all, the idea of engagement in Syria was to “fight them there, rather than at home”. The opposite may have happened: the Syrian involvement may have radicalised previously quiet people at home. However, given that no one has a better strategy, we are likely to see more of the same. Poor Russia. Poor us.