PRESIDENT VLADIMIR Putin rose to power on the promise of crushing Chechnya’s independence movement with an iron fist. The frightening explosions that destroyed Moscow apartment buildings in 1999, whose authors were never discovered, gave him a mandate: Russians enthusiastically supported his salty oath to “rub out the terrorists in the outhouse.” But as this week’s sickening suicide bombings in Volgograd have shown, Mr. Putin did not succeed. Terrorism remains a serious threat in Russia on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Few countries have succeeded in eliminating terrorism’s asymmetrical threat, but Mr. Putin’s failure must be attributed in part to his tactics. Making no distinction between Islamic extremists and those seeking greater autonomy for Chechnya and other Caucasian republics, he justified brutal tactics and a vastly expanded security state on the grounds that all rebel Chechens were terrorists. His scorched-earth approach succeeded in devastating Chechnya and destroying what remained of its secular pro-independence movement, but it left behind Islamic extremist groups that have made a point of targeting Russians where it hurts — in a Moscow theater, in an elementary school or on public transportation.
Now, once again, terrorists have struck at Russia’s underbelly. On Sunday and Monday, 31 people died in bombings at a Volgograd train station and on a trolley bus, both targets chosen to strike fear. The symbolism is potent: Stalingrad, as the city was once known, has been an iconic battleground for Russians since the fight there against the Nazis in World War II.
It is not yet clear who carried out the bombings, or why, but they are clearly a challenge for Mr. Putin. The Sochi Olympics, which open in six weeks, are his signature project, designed to show the world that, after so many years of upheaval, Russia has arrived as a modern state capable of hosting a global sports competition. A central part of Mr. Putin’s choice of Sochi, a Black Sea resort city, was to prove that Russia could provide a secure venue near the Caucasian battlefields of the past two decades.
We’ve been critical of Mr. Putin’s retreat from democracy and the anti-gay campaign undertaken by his government in the months leading up to the games. But the terrorists’ attempt to undermine the Olympics with violence is an atrocity that all civilized states must resist. Nations that are preparing to send delegations of athletes to Sochi should not now hesitate. Regardless of Mr. Putin’s preening and autocratic ambitions, those who join the Sochi Games will invest in Russia’s next generation — young people who seek greater freedom, the rule of law and connection to the global grid. This is a worthy project that must not be injured by violence.