Russia’s reaction to the terror attacks yesterday in St. Petersburg stands in stark contrast to what we have seen in public behavior in Paris, in Berlin, in Brussels following similar attacks over the past 18 months.
There is some commonality, to be sure: in every case, the head of state visited the scene of the horror to pay respects to the fallen. Vladimir Putin did just that last night, when he lay flowers at the metro station where 14 citizens died and scores more were injured, requiring hospitalization. However, Putin delivered no maudlin speech to the nation and Russian state television coverage was not dominated by images of tearful and shocked citizens lighting candles, reaffirming their faith in a free and open society and denouncing Islamophobia – all of which were the dominant themes of the media in France, Germany and Belgium.
As in the West, days of mourning for the victims were immediately declared.
However, other official reactions were more down to earth and practical. To ease the plight of the millions of residents and visitors to the city center faced with the shutdown of the entire metro system pending security searches to uncover other possible bombs, the city authorities declared that all surface transport including taxis and suburban trains would be offered free of charge for the day.
The precaution of closing the metro system turned out to be entirely justified. Within an hour of the explosion on a train traveling between two key stations of the Blue Line, Tekhnologichesky Institute and Sennaya Square, police discovered and defused a bomb twice as powerful at the Moskovsky metro station, which connects with the heavily visited Moscow railway terminal at the top of the city’s premier boulevard, Nevsky Prospekt.
Being present in the city center at just this time, I was witness to the massive flows of people along the sidewalks as we were all involuntarily turned into pedestrians to get around town. The mood, nonetheless, was calm and good-natured.
On the evening television, Thinking Russia, consisting of commentators from security experts and Duma legislators delivered their views of the tragedy: who may have been its authors and implementers, what can be done at the local, the national and the international levels to ensure public safety and protect against repeat attacks.
This is no small matter coming from a nation whose culture is perhaps best known to the world from its great 19th and early 20th century literature. Anton Chekhov summarized that culture pithily with the remark of one of his protagonists in a parlor room gathering: since they aren’t serving us tea, let’s philosophize! Russia is also the country of deductive Cartesian thinking which gave us the witticism: it works fine in practice, but how is it theory?
Russians may still enjoy verbal dueling, as we see in the popularity of their televised talk shows, but we witness more steely rationalism on the screen than heated emotion and empty pathos with respect to victims, such as predominated in Western European media following terror attacks.
Allow me then to share some key observations from the programming devoted to the St. Petersburg metro attack on Rossiya 1’s shows yesterday, 60 Minutes and Evening with Vladimir Soloviev.
First, Thinking Russia does not jump to conclusions. Although the image of a leading suspect as perpetrator extracted from station closed circuit television fits the description of a gloomy mature jihadist, the enumeration of those who might be the plotters and sponsors has no such mental constraints. As the razor-sharp Yevgeny Satanovsky explained, they could come from any of Russia’s many current ill-wishers, seeking to destabilize the country. These range from Al Qaeda, ISIS, Turkish military and the Ukrainian nationalist extremists, to the exiled oligarch and Putin-hater Mikhail Khodorkovsky. There is no room for complacency or quick solutions.
Second, Thinking Russia freely admits that no security precautions at possible points of delivery of terror attacks can provide 100% success. Yes, there are metal detectors at all metro station, rail terminals, museums and concert halls. But at peak hours, when the public passes through in waves, the police monitors cannot and do not respond to every alarm signal from these devices. And although Russia has been trying to implement an Israeli-style ‘face control’ to spot possible malefactors before they strike, lack of training and erroneous presumptions about one or another national type lead to poor results.
Third, limited policing resources have to be focused on uncovering plotters early, well before their plans are put into execution. For this to succeed, exchange of information with other national intelligence authorities is essential. This has to begin with other CIS countries, in particular in Central Asia, which is the greatest threat, given that the largest number of recruits to jihadist fighting in the Middle East and of returnees come from that region, and given that they have unhindered entry into the Russian Federation by virtue of the visa-free regime in force. But it must also apply to relations with U.S. and Western intelligence agencies generally. In this respect, they remind viewers about how the FBI and the Obama administration failed to take seriously warnings from their Russian intelligence counterparts about the Tsarnaev brothers, who subsequently carried out the Boston Marathon bombings.
The principal message of Thinking Russia to the world coming out of the St. Petersburg terror attack yesterday is the common sense need for close cooperation and intelligence sharing about terror groups and individual perpetrators among all nations, without respect to the many rancorous issues in other spheres which separate peoples and states. As the Russians are telling us, the first demand of every government is to ensure the safety and security of its citizenry. Only after that can we speak about democracy and human values, over which we may legitimately have our differences.
P.S. The identification today of the suicide bomber who is believed to have carried out the attack indicates that he was indeed from Central Asia, from Kyrgyzstan, but had been living in Russia for some time. He is said to have had ties to Syria.