It was a welcome change to hear the Western media acknowledge that the St. Petersburg bombing might have something to do with Russian foreign policy: the interventions in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria. Yet you will never hear such an angle raised when its an atrocity carried out in an American or a Western European city. In such cases any attempt to explain terrorism would be dismissed as making excuses for violence.
This moral blackmail was not deployed over St. Petersburg. What do we know about the attack? The main suspect Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Kyrgyz national, is accused of killing 14 people and injured 50 others in detonating a bomb in the St. Petersburg underground. Six people have now been arrested. They have been accused of recruiting for ISIS. The suspects are all from Central Asian states. This would fit with the analysis that the bombing was staged in reaction to Russian aggression.
Not only was Central Asia dominated by the Soviet Union, the region was on the frontline in the war in Afghanistan. Once the USSR had invaded Afghanistan, the war aims quickly changed to building a new society and occupying the country for the time being. The United States and its regional allies - particularly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - established a network of jihadists to fuel the Afghan resistance to the Red Army.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan would come to a close by 1989. Gorbachev oversaw the withdrawal and warned the West that the forces they had mobilised in Afghanistan would come back to haunt them. Of course, the network behind Osama bin Laden and the attacks on the World Trade Centre had their origins in the Afghan struggle. The war itself would create a space for Eastern European dissidents to challenge regimes backed by the USSR. This combined with economic factors would bring down the Eastern bloc.
Events in Chechnya would be even more crucial for the terror factor in Russia. As the USSR was dismantled in 1991, Chechen Ichkeria declared independence under the nationalist leadership of Dzhokhar Dudayev. Growing instability and tension in the region would lead to the eruption of armed conflict in North Ossetia, the Chechens feared the presence of the Russian armed forces would be the first stage of mission creep. Dudayev imposed a state of emergency after Russia deployed troops to the border.
At the same time, Dudayev was facing a groundswell of opposition in the fledgling state. This opposition would turn to armed force in 1994. Boris Yeltsin pledged Russian support for the attempt to overthrow the Dudayev government. Yeltsin was desperate to bolster his domestic support in the midst of his disastrous economic reforms. The instability in the Chechen region offered an opportunity. The Russians backed the opposition in order to overthrow Dudayev and crush the example of independence.
However, Dudayev held his own from October to November against the forces Yeltsin had mobilised. Russian armed forces would play a clandestine role, but the Battle of Grozny left the Russian government humiliated after the Chechen independence forces captured a large number of military vehicles and personnel. It was meant to be a swift operation to topple the government. Faced with this, Yeltsin sanctioned the invasion of Ichkeria ostensibly to restore the territorial integrity of Russia.
The Russian army began bombing the Chechen air capabilities and within ten days the invasion was underway. Just as Brezhnev had mistakenly thought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would be successful within weeks the Russians now thought the Grozny government could be toppled. The war would rage for two years before a ceasefire was signed on Russian terms. Dudayev was assassinated in an 1996 airstrike.
With American help, Yeltsin would survive the Presidential elections of 1996. Estimates of the people killed in the first Chechen war range up to 100,000, along with 500,000 people displaced, in just two years of fighting. A new war would start in 1999 following the apartment bombings in Moscow and the rise of Vladimir Putin. The second war was waged by Russia and its Chechen allies to kill off independent Ichkeria and snuff out the emergent Islamist movement in the Northern Caucasus.
The first aim was secured, but an insurgency continues to this day. Russia has been struck by numerous bombings by Chechen Islamist fighters, and a key reason for the Russian intervention in Syria has been partly to extent the war against those same Chechens - now fighting in Syria alongside the mainstream rebels and an array of jihadist groups. Of course, the main reason has been to back the Assad regime - the only Russian ally in the region.
An honest look at the situation finds that the Russian government relies upon the Islamist threat to justify its aggression in Syria. Even though Russia has been motivated partly by counter-insurgency in Chechnya, the main targets of Russian bombing have been the Syrian opposition and the civilians living in their territory, not Islamic State or al-Nusra. This in turn is a key factor in the continued threat of terrorism in Russia.