Until this autumn, Volgograd was a relatively quiet Russian city, known best for its legacy as a World War II battlefield. But that changed in October, when a female suicide bomber blew herself up on a city bus, killing six passengers, most of them teenagers.
Now, two back-to-back suspected suicide attacks just ahead of New Year celebrations—a December 29 bombing at the city's main train station followed by a December 30 trolleybus blast—have claimed more than 30 additional lives and left many to wonder why Volgograd has become an unlikely insurgent target.
With the Winter Olympics less than six weeks away, the security spotlight has been focused on host city Sochi, nestled uncomfortably close to Russia's volatile North Caucasus republics and their ongoing Islamic insurgency.
But Andrei Soldatov, the editor of Agentura.ru, a Russian site dedicated to terrorism and intelligence, says the Volgograd attacks—which took place 400 miles northeast of Sochi—throw such planning into disarray.
"I think the goal was to distract security forces. Because now, with the Olympics coming up, they'll be forced to think not only about ensuring the safety of the major Russian cities as well as Sochi and the infrastructure around the Olympic facilities," Soldatov says. "On top of that, they'll also have to pay special attention to Volgograd. It's an effective tactic—diverting attention away from a place where the terrorists may be planning their next attack."
Russian authorities, citing similarities in the explosives and shrapnel used in the latest blasts, have acknowledged the two attacks may be linked. They also bear a resemblance to the October bombing, which likewise targeted public transportation. The October blast was blamed on a Daghestani woman who had reportedly converted to Islam after marrying a North Caucasus insurgent leader and explosives expert. The husband and four others were reported killed by police in Daghestan a month later.
Islamic insurgents have frequently sought out high-profile Russian targets, most notably in Moscow. Doku Umarov, the leader of a self-proclaimed independent Islamic state, the Caucasus Emirate, this summer called on all "mujahedin fighters" to stage attacks against targets including the Sochi Olympics.
Volgograd, an industrial city of 1 million, has no evident strategic value as a terrorist target, although its train station—the site of the December 29 blast—is a major transportation hub on the country's north-south rail links. Thousands of passengers pass through the station every day, many of them traveling to and from Moscow. Volgograd Oblast, the site of a massive purge of 1980s-era communist authorities, is still viewed as one of Russia's most corrupt regions. It is unclear, however, what bearing that might have on its sudden terrorist appeal.
Other possibilities include the fact that the city is set to serve as a host during the 2018 soccer World Cup, or the fact that Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, is the site of one of the bloodiest World War II battles and a critical turning point in the war.
Writing on the website of the Carnegie Moscow Center, director Dmitry Trenin notes that the city, "a symbol of Russia's tragedy and triumph in World War II, has been singled out by the terrorists precisely because of its status in people's minds."
Dmitry Malashenko, a Caucasus expert with Carnegie Moscow, adds that ultimately, Volgograd may simply be a convenient insurgent testing ground. "It's clear there's some kind of smooth-functioning system [in Volgograd] that suits someone's purposes. Whether that someone is an organization, locals, or people from outside, we don't know," he says. "But the fact that there have been three attacks in a row in one region—excuse me, but it's a slap in the face of our authorities."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded to the bombings by stepping up security measures across the country, with the Interior Ministry promising special scrutiny of transportation hubs. But inside Volgograd, where local streets were quickly choked with emergency vehicles, correspondents have reported a distinct shortage of police personnel.
Malashenko says the authorities may have emboldened the suspected insurgents by failing to step up security in Volgograd following the first attack last October. It's an error, he says, that leaves Russia looking deeply vulnerable, particularly in the Olympic run-up.
"After the first attack, they were supposed to do a lot of work, do something to protect the population. That didn't happen. And the problem isn't where it took place—why it happened in Volgograd Oblast," he says. "The problem is where else other attacks might take place. If it happened in Volgograd, it means it could happen in any city in this part of Russia."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.