Almost forty people were killed by two terrorist attacks in the Moscow metro on March 29. These attacks were carefully planned in terms of timing and location and this, as well as their scale, suggests that they are the work of a well organized group, probably part of the underground terrorist network in the North Caucasus, which has threatened many times to strike deep within Russia.

The federal authorities have taken a series of measures recently to stabilize the situation in the North Caucasus, showing readiness on the one hand to replace its coercive, repressive model with a business model built on compromise between the main local clans and groups (the appointment of Alexander Khloponin as presidential envoy to the region and the change of leadership in Dagestan reflect this new policy), while carrying out a number of targeted special operations to liquidate terrorist underground leaders. One of the likely aims of these latest terrorist attacks was probably to demonstrate that the rebels are not only alive, but are still strong enough to organize large-scale strikes at the very heart of the country.   

Could these attacks have been prevented? The investigation will give a clearer response to this question, but we should probably not hasten to pile blame on the police and security services. After all, it is virtually impossible to fully protect a huge city from these kinds of threats, which are probably of domestic rather than foreign origin. We are dealing here with metastases. The tumor itself is a long way from Moscow, and the cure, which promises no swift results, involves, above all, taking social and economic action and using political methods. 

The authorities’ response is crucial in this kind of situation. So far, there have been two types of reaction to these kinds of headline-grabbing attacks: the usual reaction and the Beslan-type reaction. In the first approach, law enforcement officials, whether in the Caucasus or in Moscow and other big cities, react with a sudden clampdown on all “suspicious elements,” which only leads to escalating violence. The result is a vicious circle, in which the authorities’ actions fuel increasing hatred and incite new people to join the rebel groups. The second type of response involves tightening the screws all around. In today’s context, this could take the form of a tougher approach to Interior Ministry reform, for example, tougher responses to social protests, and so on. Neither option offers much benefit for the authorities themselves. They have absolutely no need to escalate the conflict in the North Caucasus, nor is it in their interests to make it even harder for the public to vent steam during the economic crisis. We can therefore hope for a more cautious and balanced response.

The public’s reaction is also important. Unlike the terrorist attacks in London or Madrid, the blasts in the Moscow metro did not unite people in a wave of solidarity against a common threat. Many hastened to save their own skins, not heeding others around, while informal taxi drivers hiked up prices, making extra money out of others’ misfortune. This points to a serious problem: a section of Moscow society – and it does not matter if they are newcomers, temporary residents or not – do not see misfortune as their own and are happy to make a profit out of what they consider others’ problems. What kind of calamity has to occur in order to unite people in a common sense of citizenship?