President Vladimir Putin gave his first public response on Tuesday to the devastating bomb attacks in Volgograd and promised to hunt down the terrorists responsible “until their complete annihilation”.
In his new year message, delivered from Russia’s far east for the first time, Putin paid tribute to the victims of the twin attacks. Suicide bombers blew up Volgograd’s train station on Sunday and a crowded commuter trolleybus on Monday morning, killing 34 people. At least 60 casualties remain in hospital.
“Dear friends, we bow our heads before the victims of these brutal attacks. We will fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation,” Putin said in a video address to the nation from Khabarovsk. He promised to support the Volgograd victims and rebuild destroyed infrastructure.
Putin’s blunt, uncompromising rhetoric towards terrorism is nothing new. It has been a hallmark of his three stints in the Kremlin. In 1999, when a little-known prime minister, he famously pledged to “waste Chechen rebels in the outhouse”.
But the attacks, just over a month before Russia hosts the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, have raised questions about whether the authorities can keep the games safe and the effectiveness of Putin’s harsh counter-terrorism strategy.
Despite two bloody wars in Chechnya, Moscow is still battling a low-level insurgency by Islamist militants across its southern flank. The conflict is no longer confined to Chechnya and has spread to most of the country’s simmering Muslim republics. The Volgograd attacks show that the rebels have the capacity to strike at targets deep inside European Russia.
The president’s message alluded to his foreign policy successes in 2013. “Our country has become better, richer and more comfortable, and has strongly defended its interests in international affairs,” he said.
Putin has succeeded in humiliating the US on several occasions, offering asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and thwarting US strikes on Syria by reaching an unexpected deal over Syria’s chemical weapons programme. He outplayed the European Union over Ukraine and wrong-footed his critics by pardoning the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two members of the protest rock group Pussy Riot.
Tight security remains in Volgograd, with the deployment of 5,200 troops as well as volunteer patrols. At least 87 people have been rounded up in a series of sweeps by the security forces.
Empty buses lumbered through the streetson Tuesday , police weighed down with body armour warily watched pedestrians near a fast food restaurant and members of Cossack units stood guard at bus stops. Volgograd was ominous and jittery, residents said.
“People are afraid it will happen again; they’re trying not to go outside if they don’t have to,” Yulia Kuzmina, a 20-year-old student, told the Associated Press. “We get a feeling that a war has started.”
The first funeral from the attacks took place on Tuesday . Dmitry Makovin, 29, a police officer, was killed while standing next to a metal detector at the entrance to Volgograd station. His superiors hailed him as a hero for preventing the suicide bomber from entering inside the building.