Brazen suicide bombings in the center of Moscow on Monday confronted Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin with a grave challenge to his record of curbing terrorism, and raised the possibility that he will respond as he has in the past by significantly tightening control over the government.
The explosions, set off by female suicide bombers in two landmark subway stations, killed at least 38 people and wounded scores of others, raising fears that the Muslim insurgency in southern Russia, including Chechnya, was once again being brought to the country’s heart.
The attacks during the morning rush hour seemed all but designed to taunt the security services, which have been championed by Putin in the decade since he took power in Russia. The first one occurred at the Lubyanka subway station, next to the headquarters of the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB that Putin led in the late 1990’s.
Putin, the former president and current prime minister, has built his reputation in part on his success in bottling up the Muslim insurgency in southern Russia and preventing major terrorist attacks in the country’s population centers in recent years. If the bombings on Monday herald a renewed campaign by insurgents in major cities, then that legacy may be tarnished.
The attacks could also throw into doubt the policies of Putin’s protege, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, who has spoken in favor of liberalizing the government, increasing political pluralism and dealing with terrorism by addressing the root causes of the insurgency.
While Medvedev has not yet many major changes, Putin has generally allowed him to pursue his course. More terrorism, though, could cause Putin to shove Medvedev aside and move the security-oriented circle of advisers around Putin to the forefront.
“Putin said, ‘One thing that I definitely accomplished was this,’ and he didn’t,” said Pavel K. Baev, a Russian who is a professor at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
“My feeling is this is not an isolated attack, that we will see more,” Baev said. “If we are facing a situation where there is a chain of attacks, that would undercut every attempt to soften, liberalize, open up, and increase the demand for tougher measures.”
Putin on Monday limited his comments largely to vows to destroy the terrorists who organized the attacks, who have not been identified. But when he last faced a spate of such violence, in 2004, he reacted with a sweeping reorganization of the government that he said would unite the country against terrorism but also concentrated power in the Kremlin.
He pushed through laws that eliminated the direct election of regional governors, turning them into presidential appointees, and made it all but impossible for political independents to be elected to the federal parliament. He also increased the strength of the security services.