Death toll rises in attacks on churches and synagogues in Dagestan, officials say

Attacks on a police station and a house of worship in southern Russia on Sunday raised fears of a new wave of violence in the country’s volatile North Caucasus region and highlighted the growing security challenges facing the Kremlin amid calls for war in Ukraine.

Coordinated attacks by gunmen on two of Dagestan’s largest cities left at least 20 people dead in the region’s deadliest attacks in 14 years, evoking memories of intense violence that ravaged Russia’s Muslim-majority region in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The violence was fuelled by a combination of Islamic fundamentalism and organised crime, and quelling it became one of President Vladimir V. Putin’s greatest prides since coming to power in 1999.

That legacy is now at risk of being tarnished by a new surge in extremist violence.

In March, four gunmen killed 145 people at a concert hall near Moscow in an attack claimed by the Islamic State, the deadliest terror attack in Russia in more than a decade and carried out despite the United States giving Russia fairly detailed warnings about their plans.

In October, in Dagestan, a mob apparently searching for Jewish passengers attacked a plane arriving from Tel Aviv.

And earlier this month, several men held on terrorism charges staged a brief prison rebellion in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, taking guards hostage and releasing an unconfirmed video claiming links to the Islamic State before being shot dead by security forces.

Russian authorities classified Sunday’s attack in Dagestan as a terrorist act but it was not immediately clear who was responsible, and a Kremlin spokesman declined to comment Monday on the gunman’s motive.

Though few details have been released, the attack in Dagestan has added to the impression of a weakening of the Kremlin’s ability to quell long-simmering ethnic and religious tensions in the North Caucasus, violence that Mr. Putin crushed two decades ago at the cost of strengthening brutal dictators, violating human rights and flooding the country with exorbitant federal subsidies.

The challenge is now further complicated, as the war of attrition in Ukraine puts a strain on the economy and the efficiency of Russia’s security apparatus.

“The region is densely populated with security forces, but they have no control over the current situation because Russian authorities’ resources and attention are primarily focused on the war in Ukraine,” Tanya Lokshina, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at research group Human Rights Watch, said of Dagestan, who called Sunday’s attack “a major intelligence failure.”

Gunmen’s targets on Sunday included a police station, a synagogue and an Orthodox church in the Dagestan cities of Makhachkala and Derbent. Fifteen of the victims were police officers and one was an Orthodox priest who was killed in a church. It is unclear whether the attackers were specifically targeting police officers.

Five attackers were ultimately killed by security forces, according to local officials.

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian security analyst and expert on the North Caucasus, said Sunday’s plot had some hallmarks of violent incidents in the early 2000s, when armed men simultaneously targeted police checkpoints and carried out hit-and-run attacks, but also included new elements, including: Local elites are reportedly involved” he added, which contributed to the intelligence agencies’ failure to uncover the plot.

Russian state media and propaganda sources said the attackers were mostly men in their 30s, including relatives of local officials. Member of a prominent martial arts clubIt is a major sport in the Republic of Dagestan, and some of the athletes work for major state-owned companies, which are high-paying jobs in the region.

The Republic of Dagestan’s roughly 3.2 million inhabitants are divided into several dozen ethnic groups, the largest of which are primarily Muslim, but the region also has a sizable Christian minority and one of Russia’s oldest Jewish communities.

In the early days of the violence in the North Caucasus, security forces came under almost daily attack and Islamic terrorists targeted public gatherings in cities including Moscow and St. Petersburg, more than 1,000 miles away from the region.

“The trauma of the war in Chechnya and terrorist attacks in major cities is ever-present in Russia and easily evoked,” Soldatov said.

Following the national trauma caused by Sunday’s attack, the Kremlin took the customary step of reassuring Russians that it was an isolated tragedy.

“Russia today has changed a lot,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said at a news conference on Monday. “Russian society is much more integrated.”

The Kremlin faces multiple security challenges as the Ukraine war enters its third year. Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Monday claimed U.S. responsibility for another deadly incident on Sunday, an explosion on a beach in the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula that officials said killed four people, including two children, and hospitalized 82 others.

Russia said the incident occurred after Ukraine fired a U.S.-supplied long-range missile at the Crimean peninsula, which was intercepted and exploded in the air. The State Department summoned the U.S. ambassador to Moscow on Monday, saying there was “no doubt about U.S. involvement in this evil crime.”

Mykhailo Podolyakh, a senior adviser to the President of Ukraine, Explained Crimea is a legitimate target, and “Russia is cynically using its own civilians to cover up hundreds” of military installations.

Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder declined to answer questions about the strikes, saying those should be directed to Ukraine. “Ukraine makes its own decisions regarding operations and targets,” he told reporters.

The Crimean explosion was an embarrassment for the Kremlin and highlighted its inability to protect civilians – many of them Russian holidaymakers – in a conflict zone that Putin has touted as a full part of Russia.

The administration’s quickness to blame the United States for the Crimean explosion contrasted with its muted response to the Dagestan attack. The conflicting responses speak to a broader attempt by the administration to exaggerate external threats seemingly beyond its control and to downplay the failures of its domestic intelligence agencies.

In the absence of official guidance from the Kremlin, many pro-government commentators on Monday sought to present the Dagestan attack as part of a broader, standalone Russian confrontation with nebulous, dark forces in a hostile world. This narrative of national victimhood has become increasingly prevalent in Putin’s Russia since the invasion of Ukraine.

“We know who is behind these terrorist acts,” said Sergei Melikov, head of the Dagestan republic. address He issued a warning to residents without identifying the perpetrators, and drew a comparison between the victims of the attack and Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine, saying they were facing the same unnamed enemy.

“We need to understand that the war has come into our homes,” Melikov added.

But the history of terrorist violence in the North Caucasus region makes it hard for authorities to blame Sunday’s attacks on any vague, unified external enemy, said Alexander Baunov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Center, a Berlin-based research group.

“What we are seeing is the latest example of the Russian regime losing control in many places,” Baunov wrote on the messaging app Telegram on Monday, “many of which are unexpected even for the government itself.”

Oleg Matznev and Anton Troianovsky Contributed report.

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