After more than a year of absence, terrorism raised its ugly head in Russia again. At least 60 people were injured when a bomb that according to the Russian Interior Ministry contained the equivalent of roughly 2 kilograms of TNT derailed an express train near Veliky Novgorod in northwestern Russia Monday evening.
“The threat of extremism and terrorism has not been completely eliminated," the head of Russia’s interior intelligence agency FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, on Tuesday told Russian news service Interfax.
According to RIA Novosti, more than 30 of the more than 230 passengers were hospitalized, mostly injured by shattered glass after 12 of 13 cars and the locomotive of the Nevsky Express went off the rails at a speed of nearly 120 mph.
Luckily, nobody died, but the incident could have ended much worse: The bomb exploded some 100 feet before the train crossed a 60-foot-high railway bridge over a roadway. The driver was able to maneuver the train over the bridge before it derailed, preventing a high death toll that would surely have ensued if the cars had fallen off the bridge.
The attack sparked speculation over who may be responsible: Because violence has shot up significantly in recent months in the North Caucasus, where Chechnya is located, officials have blamed Russian right-wing extremists.
Radio Free Europe said it had received a telephone call from a man who identified himself as the deputy commander of Chechen extremist organization Riyadus-Salikhin. The man said his group planned the bombing in retaliation for Russia's role in Chechnya.
The group has been linked to a number of terrorist acts, including the 2002 attack on the pro-Russian Chechen government building in Grozny, and the so-called black widow airline and subway suicide bombings in 2004.
Prosecutors have opened a terrorism investigation, and on Wednesday criminal authorities distributed a composite sketch of one of the men suspected in the bomb blast based on accounts of eyewitness who saw two men on the rails prior to the explosion.
Patrushev, the head of the FSB, said police were ready to boost security and surveillance nationwide before the parliamentary elections in December and the presidential elections in March of next year.
The move comes as no surprise: Putin, the Russian president, has in the past promoted himself as the man who defeated terrorism; the last major attack dates back a year; at the time, a bomb exploded in a busy market square in Moscow, killing 10 and injuring more than 50 people. Since then, things were quiet on the Russian domestic front -- until Monday.
Putin will likely want to exit Russian politics as the man who restored order to formerly chaotic Russia, be it in economic or security terms. More than that, Putin wants to pave the way for his successor to lead in the same way he did -- autocratic.
To achieve that goal, the attack may be helpful, observers say. Interior and foreign enemies have in the past helped to unite the country behind its leadership. Ahead of the elections, one can expect that the political opposition will be labeled extremist -- even harmless liberal figures like former chess world champion Garry Kasparov.
The upcoming elections may also strain Russia's relations with the West. To throw aggressive rhetoric at old enemies like the United States is not unpopular in Russia, so expect some Cold War deja vus sparked by Russia beginning this fall.