Russian news agencies are quoting Dmitry Gorin, vice president of the Russian Travel Agencies Association, as saying the number of Russian tourists brought home from Egypt is likely to reach 23,000 by mid-day. Their returns come after last week’s announcement that Russia was suspending new passenger flights to Egypt because of security concerns in the aftermath of the Oct. 31 plane crash. Dozens of airliners have been bringing Russian tourists back home, carrying only cabin baggage, while Russian cargo planes are hauling back the rest of their luggage. The Emergency Situations Ministry said in a statement that the authorities will also be bringing over 130 tons of the tourists’ luggage on four cargo planes on Monday.
The strong likelihood is that the plane was brought down by a bomb planted on board — an act of war that any self-respecting nation must immediately respond to. So what will Putin do?
No matter what caused the fatal crash of a Russian airliner in Egypt, the answer will almost certainly hit Russia hard — but not President Vladimir Putin. There’s no indication of a force-majeure cause such as freak weather, leaving terrorism or aircraft failure as the leading suspects. Either answer could challenge Russia’s new self-confidence — but could also be used by Putin to advance his aims and reinforce his power.
Since a Metrojet Airbus A321-200 crashed in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people aboard, Russian officials have assiduously refrained from speculating on the cause of the crash and upbraided the news media for doing so. Most of those killed were Russian tourists. But Russia’s sudden decision Friday to suspend passenger flights to all destinations in Egypt — a move it said reflects concerns about Egyptian airport security — strongly suggests that officials’ prime suspicion is that a bomb was spirited aboard the Metrojet before it left the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. A faction of the militant Islamic State group claimed it had downed the airliner in retaliation for Russia launching airstrikes on IS positions in Syria a month earlier.
One suspects that Putin is biding his time, preparing to deliver a killing blow against ISIS:
A proven terror attack on a plane full of Russian tourists could be a traumatic reminder to Russians of the vulnerability they felt to terrorism connected to the wars in Chechnya, including the twin plane suicide bombings on one night in 2004. As Moscow’s conflict with insurgents in Chechnya and other North Caucasus areas has dwindled, Russians have breathed easier — the last major terrorist attack in Russia were the December 2013 bombings in Volgograd that killed 32 people ahead of Russia hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi. A plane attack could revive that unease but it would also be fundamentally different. It could even galvanize support for more airstrikes in Syria.
“The source of the attack is a foreign one, and it’s hard to blame Putin for the mere fact of IS activities,” analyst Tatiana Stanovaya wrote in the online publication Slon. “A terrorist attack against Russian citizens means a declaration of war on all Russians. The Syria campaign will thus become not a matter of Putin’s ambitions, but of national revenge.”
The Russians have suffered from Islamic terrorism even more grievously than the Americans, and no one (besides Obama, of course) would blame them for an all-out assault on the roots of the evil that now consumes the globe. George Bush squandered his opportunity after 9/11 — will Putin?