Putin Seen Leaning on Chechnya Lessons as Jet Bomb Worries Grow

  • Kremlin rejects `speculation' over terrorist attack on plane
  • Russians support Putin in terrorism fight, Klintsevich says

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to wage war in Syria will be strengthened if it turns out that Islamic extremists brought down a Metrojet aircraft in Egypt, even as his own citizens become increasingly uneasy about the risk of a domestic attack, according to analysts and officials.

Russia on Thursday dismissed U.S. and U.K. assertions that a bomb may have caused the tragedy, in which all 224 people on board were killed, as premature and politically motivated. If borne out by an international investigation, however, Putin’s response will be to crack down, not back down, just as he did on Islamic militants in Russia’s breakaway region of Chechnya during the early years of his rule, officials say.

“The terrorist threat to us has always existed and is growing,” Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, said Thursday. Russia’s military operation in Syria is targeting terrorists there and “if it weren’t for this operation, sooner or later we would have had to pay a much higher price,” he said.

Putin’s approval rating among Russians jumped to a record high of almost 90 percent after he ordered air strikes against Islamic State and other militants in Syria to begin on Sept. 30, limiting potential for a backlash against him over the air crash. Other polls show Russians’ fears of terrorism have increased since the campaign began, however, though public confidence in the government’s ability to protect them has also grown.

Putin’s tough line against Chechen terrorism in Russia won strong support in the early 2000s, even as attacks in Moscow and other major cities killed hundreds. He consolidated his rise to power by waging war in Chechnya soon after he emerged as then-President Boris Yeltsin’s favored successor.

‘Increase’ Military

Even if Putin becomes convinced that the plane bound for St. Petersburg was the victim of an attack over the Sinai peninsula, “he’s a person who doesn’t back down, especially in the face of terrorist acts,” Igor Bunin, president of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, said by phone Thursday. Putin is “more likely to increase the military presence in Syria, though not by too much,” and the Kremlin will stop short of a significant deployment of ground troops, he said.

Russian state media played down western governments’ decisions to suspend flights to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where the doomed Russian plane took off, focusing instead on news that the investigation is continuing and hasn’t reached a conclusion yet. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the crash in a statement released hours after the Airbus A321 exploded in midair about 23 minutes after takeoff Saturday from the resort, a favorite holiday spot among Russians.

‘Doubling Down’

Aviation regulators in Moscow said they would not impose their own restrictions on flights to the region. At the same time, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered the government to ask all countries that receive flights from Russia to step up security at airports.

A terrorist attack “is exactly what the U.S. and its allies had predicted would happen after Russia went into Syria,” Richard Gowan, New York-based fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said by e-mail. “They will hope that Moscow will be more flexible over Syria after this. But in all likelihood Putin, may respond by doubling down militarily and demanding more Western support in a joint war on terror, which will not be welcome.”

Russians have experience of terrorism and “support the country’s leadership today, which is trying to neutralize these things while they’re far away,” Franz Klintsevich, deputy head of the Federation Council’s defense committee, said Thursday. “People will support Putin on this issue.”

Bomb ‘Speculation’

Islamic State “has convinced at least some people that it struck a real blow to the Russians, which is a propaganda coup for them,” Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, said by e-mail.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that statements by U.S. and U.K. officials about a bomb are “speculation” and there’s “no basis to say one version is more credible” than others.

The British statement is part of “geopolitical resistance to Russia’s actions in Syria,” Kosachyov said, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news service. “As cynical as it may sound, there are enough of those in the world who would prefer to attribute this catastrophe -- without adequate evidence -- to a response by Jihadis toward Russia.”

Terrorism Fears

Russia is “shocked” that the U.K. hasn’t shared its intelligence on the cause of the crash with Russian officials, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow on Thurday.

Fear of terrorism among Russians has increased since Putin ordered bombing operations in Syria, with 65 percent worried that they or their loved ones may become victims of an attack, up from 58 percent at the end of 2014, according to an Oct. 17-18 poll of 1,600 people by the state-run VTsIOM company, published Oct. 23. Confidence in the authorities is also at a record high, however, and 77 percent believe “the government will be able to protect the population against terrorist attacks,” according to a statement on VTsIOM’s website.

“Our people don’t like to think about this,” VTsIOM director Valery Fyorodov said by phone Thursday. “It’s not that the level of security has risen, just that people simply push it out of their heads.”

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