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In Paris Attacks, Echoes of Russian Tragedies Past

  • Charles Maynes

Russian emergency services personnel working at the crash site of a A321 Russian airliner in Wadi al-Zolomat, a mountainous area of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. (Russian Emergency Ministry Handout photo)

Russian emergency services personnel working at the crash site of a A321 Russian airliner in Wadi al-Zolomat, a mountainous area of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. (Russian Emergency Ministry Handout photo)

The attacks in Paris have forced Russian officials to acknowledge what many in the West have long suspected: the downing of a Russian Metrojet airliner over the Sinai peninsula — killing all 224 people on board — was an act of terror.

In a televised meeting at the Kremlin, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov, informed Russian President Vladimir Putin that his investigation had determined the plane was destroyed by "traces of foreign explosives."

A woman lays flowers at a makeshift memorial for victims of a Russian airliner which crashed in Egypt, outside Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nov. 4, 2015.

A woman lays flowers at a makeshift memorial for victims of a Russian airliner which crashed in Egypt, outside Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nov. 4, 2015.

Appearing shocked by the finding, Putin promised justice and declared those responsible would be hunted down wherever they might hide. "We will find them in any place on Earth and punish them," said the Russian leader.

Putin's tough talk sounded familiar to Russians who have lived with terror over the years.

Russian apartment building bombings in 1999

Boris Vishnevsky, a deputy with the liberal Yabloko party in St. Petersburg, where many of the Metrojet victims were from, notes that Putin made similar calls for vengeance back in 1999.

Then, a series of mysterious late-night apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities killed and injured hundreds — terrorizing the country.

Putin, then a newly-appointed prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, blamed Chechen guerrilla fighters for the attacks.

"We will chase terrorists everywhere," Putin said at the time. "If we find them in the toilet, excuse me, we'll rub them out in the outhouse."

The bold talk launched Putin's political career — and the second Chechen war.

Vishnevsky argues, this time, Putin's reluctance to label the Metrojet crash an act of terror was again a question of political expediency — a reluctance by the Kremlin to admit that a well-managed military operation in Syria had gone awry, with Russian civilians paying the price.

In this photo taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, Russian military support crew inspect missiles attached to their jet at an air base in Syria. at an air base Hmeimim in Syria.

In this photo taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, Russian military support crew inspect missiles attached to their jet at an air base in Syria. at an air base Hmeimim in Syria.

"To admit it was terrorism right away would mean giving a basis for questions of whether this was revenge for Russia's air campaign against ISIS in Syria," he says.

The attacks in Paris effectively provide an opportunity to internationalize that mistake, adds Vishnevsky.

Dubrovka to Bataclan

Meanwhile, in the attacks in Paris and — in particular — the Bataclan music hall -- Russians see echoes of another tragedy: the Nord-Ost siege of 2002.

On October 23 of that year, Chechen fighters stormed Moscow's Dubrovka Theater during a performance of the Russian musical Nord-Ost, taking more than 800 people hostage.

Tatiana Karpova lost her son Alexander in the ensuing rescue, after Russian commandos pumped an aerosol gas into the theater, killing the Chechen attackers but also 130 spectators.

In an interview with VOA, Karpova says she's been struck by the outpouring of grief for the Paris victims in Moscow — with Russians lining up to bring flowers and candles to the French Embassy. "It's wonderful to see people coming together and sharing their grief," said Karpova.

Karpova, however, also questions promises from the Kremlin to never forget the victims of the downed Metrojet. In their moment of grief, Karpova says, the families of the Nord-Ost victims were all but abandoned.

"We were on our own," says Karpova. "Our government never takes responsibility for anything. Back then, when we asked for help, they told us,'What can we do? Go to talk to the families of the Chechen terrorists. We're not going to do anything,'" she says.

"It was hurtful — believe me."

A global anti-terror coalition?

These days, the Kremlin has a different message: we are all in this together.

President Putin has called for Russia and the West to overcome their differences on Ukraine and Syria by joining in a grand coalition to defeat the Islamic State group. Already, Russia has expanded its attacks on ISIS targets in Syria and coordinated with French military operations in the region.

Russian cooperation in the face of tragedy, too, is a familiar refrain.

After the 9/11 attacks in the United States 14 years ago, Putin was quick to offer condolences and argued Russia and the West should overcome their differences to combat terror.

It's an alliance that largely worked against al-Qaida — until, that is, the threat seemed to go away.

Still, Boris Vishnevsky, the St. Petersburg lawmaker, says the Kremlin's new offers for an alliance with the West depend on whether it can wean itself off of anti-Western rhetoric that has ratcheted up Putin's popularity over the past two years.

"If you watch Russian TV, it's not clear who's the bigger enemy — America or Islamic State," says Vishnevsky.

"This political schizophrenia can't continue forever."

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