MOSCOW — The suicide bombs that roared through Moscow subway cars Monday were almost certainly the latest salvo in a slow-moving war of attrition between the Russian government and militants in the restive, mostly Muslim republics of the Caucasus.
Vladimir V. Putin has been trading blows with southern rebels ever since he rose to the presidency a decade ago. At times, violence has threatened to erode the social contract he’s struck with the Russian public: Forgo some of their democratic rights in exchange for, above all, stability.
And yet, many analysts say Putin consolidated his power by waging a war in Chechnya — his strength was built by convincing people to unite with him against dangerous threats. The militants have menaced and fueled Putin’s leadership, they say.
On Monday, two female suicide bombers climbed into packed subway cars in Moscow’s bustling downtown in the middle of rush hour and blew themselves up, killing at least 38 people and injuring dozens more. It was the first such attack to reach Moscow in six years, raising the specter of violence creeping back into the heart of Russia.
The killings seemed intended to rattle the very core of Russian national identity. Lubyanka Square, the first to be attacked, holds a deep and unsettling place in the Russian consciousness as the headquarters of the Soviet KGB, and now its successor, the FSB. Next came Park Kultury, another iconic station alongside Gorky Park, where Russian children flock for roller coasters, sprawling gardens and ice skating.
Investigators said they had identified one of the bombers, and were hunting for two women who were seen on surveillance camera footage accompanying the attackers to the doors of a Metro station in southwest Moscow, law enforcement sources told Interfax.
Some of the suicide attackers’ remains were found in the bombed trains, and were sent for forensic identification. The remains included the head of a woman believed to be a bomber, unnamed investigators told Russian news agencies.
“Probably it was a reply to some injustice or atrocity done to their fathers or brothers, whoever, but it’s only the end of a tentacle,” said Sergei Arutyunov, chair of the Caucasus department at the Russian Academy of Science. “And the tentacles converge in a large, loose body of separatism and pseudo-Islamic fanaticism.”
Women have been responsible for a number of past attacks by Chechen militants, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday’s bombings.
However, some officials speculated that the blasts could be an act of vengeance from supporters of Sayed Buryatsky, an Islamist ideologue who was reported killed by security services earlier this month in the republic of Ingushetia. The Russian government had blamed Buryatsky for a spate of recent attacks, including the bombing of a high-speed train linking Moscow to St Petersburg in November.
An Islamist Web site later confirmed Buryatsky’s death. Another rebel leader, Doku Umarov, threatened Russian cities in a February interview with a Web site linked to the Islamists. “Blood will no longer be limited to our cities and towns,” Umarov said. “The war is coming to their cities.”
The explosions come just a few days after the 10th anniversary of Putin’s election to the presidency. Putin was forced from the presidency by term limits, and now serves as prime minister. But he is widely seen as Russia’s ultimate authority, and many analysts expect him to return to the presidency.
Much of Putin’s time in power has been defined by the struggle with Islamic militants.
Putin was elevated to national power by Boris N. Yeltsin, who had fought a disastrous campaign in Chechnya. Putin brought Chechnya back under Moscow’s control in a second war. After the installation of proxy leadership to crack down on Chechen separatists and lingering, heavy-handed efforts to squash violence, bloodshed has surged again on the southern edge of Russia.
The Monday morning carnage piles extra pressure onto a government already struggling to tamp down public discontent over economic woes.
“Obviously, we have not done enough,” President Dmitry Medvedev said at an emergency meeting, Russian news agencies reported. State television aired footage of Medvedev questioning some of Russia’s top officials.
Medvedev later visited Lubyanka station, where he took the escalator down to the platform and laid flowers at the scene of the explosion. “They are beasts,” he told reporters outside, referring to those responsible for the blasts.