Richard Hopwood: Bombing is a licence for Putin to entrench his power

VLADIMIR PUTIN has vowed retribution against those responsible for the bomb attack on Moscow's Domodevodo airport which killed 35 people and injured 180. And, as many in Russia and elsewhere could testify, the prime minister's retribution is terrible indeed.

For the former KGB man, soon expected to resume what he sees as his natural role of President, a terrorist attack on Russia – and there have been three major attacks in the past year – is not so much an outrage as an opportunity to extend and entrench his power still further.

And while Putin likes to emphasise that terrorism in Russia is part of a global scourge, against which he is fighting four-square alongside his Western allies, the reality is that Islamist terror in Russia is of a very different nature to that being waged by al-Qaida and its associates.

Of course, it is true that Russia's Islamists – almost all of whom are militants from Chechnya, Ingushetia or Dagestan – have an interest in bringing the plight of their North Caucasus region to worldwide attention. The Domodevodo attack, after all, took place at 4.30pm, the busiest time for arrivals at one of Russia's most popular international airports. The aim was not merely to kill Russians.

However, the agenda of the Caucasus militants is not that of al-Qaida, which asipres to the imposition of Islamic rule on the decadent West. On the contrary, this is a nationalist conflict, fuelled by fierce and growing ethnic hatred, which has only taken on a religious context comparatively recently as Moscow's policy of violence and persecution in the North Caucasus played into the hands of the militants preaching jihad.

With growing reports of clashes in Moscow and other Russian cities between ethnic Russians and migrant workers from the North Caucasus, Russia seems locked into a spiral of violence. Yet this is a situation which Putin gives every indication of believing he can manage and exploit.

Given his record, this is hardly surprising. It was, after all, Putin's mentor Boris Yeltsin who demonstrated how to use appalling violence in the Caucasus as an election-winning tactic with his attempt to crush the independence movement in Chechnya in the mid-nineties.

In 1999, in the so-called Second Chechen War, Putin tried to finish the job that Yeltsin had started. His brutal repression of the Chechens resulted in a puppet Soviet-style government being imposed and enforced by the FSB security service, the KGB's successor, and forged Putin's reputation at home and abroad as a hard man and a champion of Russian nationalism. It also earned him bitter criticism from human-rights groups who reported on the wanton destruction of the Chechen capital, Grozny, and the systematic torture of Chechen civilians. He was elected President the following year.

There remains a scandalous discrepancy between the outcry in the West over the war in Iraq, or alleged human-rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay, and the comparative silence over the Russian subjugation of Chechnya. After all, while the invasion of Iraq was carried out with the intention, whether misguided or not, of advancing democracy, Russian troops were sent into the Caucasus with the clear aim of stifling the people's will.

Of course, it is not only the citizens of Chechnya who live under a Putin dictatorship. Every day more and more Russians are realising that they are in the same situation. Wikileaks famously revealed a Spanish prosecutor's claim that Russia was a "virtual mafia state", but organised crime, of course, is just that – well organised – and it is clear in Russia where the boundaries lie and what happens to those who overstep them.

Just ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed former oil tycoon who now faces several more years of incarceration following a court decision which came days after Putin had publicly declared him guilty of theft and murder. Or Boris Nemtsov, leader of Russia's liberal opposition, who said that Khodorkovsky's sentence "had nothing to do with the rule of law". A day later, he was arrested, jailed for 15 days and refused the right of appeal.

Just as Russia's Chechen policy has been decided by the political needs of Putin, so too are cases such as Khodorkovsky's and the state's expropriation of Yukos, the private oil firm once led by Khodorkovsky, which was dismembered by the government, with its assets passed to Rosneft, the state-owned company with whom BP has now got into bed.

The common thread in all this has been the steady consolidation of all political and economic power within a narrow elite and the reaction to the Domodedovo bombing will undoubtedly form part of the same process.

The hard fact is that Putin has always used threatening events in Russia as a means of gaining more power and this year is unlikely to see any change. After all, he has a presidency to regain.

Richard Hopwood is a former chief leader writer at the Yorkshire Post