How Terrorism Helps Putin Subvert Democracy in Russia


Shortly after the little-known former KGB agent Vladimir Putin ascended to the Kremlin leadership 24 years ago, he made a de facto pact with the Russian populace: Some personal liberties might be curtailed but his iron-fisted control of the country would keep them safe.

It was a time of war and violence destabilizing much of the world, from Russia’s second war with Chechen Islamic militants, deadly apartment bombings in Russian cities and acts of terrorism in the United States and Western Europe.

Putin made good on rolling back short-lived democratic freedoms enacted during the administrations of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. He shuttered independent media, resumed Stalinist repression to stifle dissent and silenced human rights activists by branding their activism the work of “foreign agents.” He merged Bolshevik authoritarianism with czarist-era absolute power to eliminate rivals and isolate Russia from the rules-based world with unprovoked invasions of former Soviet neighbors.

Russian citizens should be outraged at the broken promises of security. Hundreds of thousands of men have been deployed to fight Putin’s globally-denounced war in Ukraine. Foreign businesses and journalists have decamped to Western refuges, taking their jobs and investments with them.

Elections that in the first decade after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union had become relatively free and fair are now staged rituals to ratify Putin’s power for the rest of his life.

Putin has led his country of 144 million back centuries and crushed any hope of a return to its fleeting embrace of democracy in the first heady years of post-Soviet Russia.

Destruction of free media has been his most effective tool. Russians are locked in an information vacuum in which truth has little power to break through and dispel the official narrative that the West is a threat to Russia, not the other way around.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is cast as an existential battle against U.S.-led NATO aggression. Last month’s terror attack at a Moscow concert venue was just the latest horrific bloodletting by Islamic extremists. Attacks that killed thousands have been in retaliation for Putin’s own brand of terror in Chechnya, Syria and across Africa’s Sahel region where Kremlin-backed mercenaries help dictators depose elected leaders.

Putin has extinguished all political opposition, imprisoning or driving into foreign exile those who survived poisoning or assassination by federal security agents. His corrupt justice system has prosecuted human rights advocates for anti-state crimes, including treason.

“Russia is no longer an authoritarian state — it is a totalitarian state,”Oleg Orlov, co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning rights group Memorial, told the Associated Press earlier this year. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison in February for “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces fighting in Ukraine.

“The Kremlin’s constricting oppression of its people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights is dragging the country back into a dark, dangerous and isolated place,” U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy said of the sentencing of Orlov and outlawing of Memorial. 

On Monday, the 71-year-old activist was reported to be ill and losing his hearing due to “inhumane treatment” in prison, Memorial wrote in a statement. The rights group that has agitated for social justice since 1988 estimates there are at least 680 political prisoners in Russian jails and labor camps and hundreds more under investigation. 

Concern for Orlov’s condition comes amid a rise in social tension in Russia since the Feb. 16 death of prominent opposition activist Alexei Navalny at a remote Arctic Circle penal colony. Federal police cracked down on public mourning of Putin’s most vocal critic and survivor of a 2020 poisoning. Navalny supporters protested Putin’s preordained victory in the election ritual in March by lining up to vote at noon then spoiling their ballots.

Putin was riding high on his elimination of the charismatic Navalny and securing his fifth term as Kremlin leader that will run until 2030. Then the ISIS-K terror faction staged a lightning raid at the Crocus City Hall entertainment venue on the outskirts of Moscow. Four gunmen with assault rifles shot and killed 144 concert-goers and injured hundreds of others.

The Kremlin and its puppet journalists blamed Ukraine and its Western allies for the slaughter. They persisted in trying to implicate Kyiv and the United States even after security forces arrested the Tajik suspects who apparently attacked in revenge for Russian atrocities against Muslims in Syria and elsewhere where Russian troops and mercenaries are engaged in battle.

The March 22 attack at the Crocus venue was the worst terror strike in Russia in 20 years and the third major intelligence failure by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, since Putin launched his “special military operation” in Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

FSB agents, disproportionately focused on surveilling and punishing political dissent, failed to correctly assess the Russian military prospects for swift victory in Ukraine. Russian troops and mercenaries were forced into humiliating retreat within a few months.

Neither did the vaunted FSB security apparatus deter rebel mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin from leading an armored column and tens of thousands of soldiers of fortune in a June 2023 protest of Kremlin bungling of the Ukraine war. Prigozhin was killed in a not-so-mysterious midair explosion of his private plane two months later.

“Russia’s response to terrorism in the Putin years has been almost performatively brutal, including the gassing of a Moscow theater full of hostages in October 2022, and the storming with heavy weapons of a school in Beslan in Ingushetia in 2004. Many hundreds died to burnish the Kremlin’s image,” Edward Lucas, a former Moscow correspondent for The Economist, writes in a March 25 analysis for the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

“Terrorism was the midwife to Vladimir Putin’s regime. As a Moscow correspondent in the fall of 1999, I witnessed the public horror at the carnage wrought in the apartment block bombings in the Russian capital and elsewhere,” Lucas recalls of the end of Russia’s experiments in democracy.

Putin and the oligarchs he enriched by monopolizing Russia’s vast natural resources began amassing their power by squeezing out defiant rivals, seizing their successful businesses and driving them into foreign exile.

Yukos oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent a decade in Russian prisons for challenging Putin politically before being released to Berlin in December 2013. German authorities and human rights advocates won Khodorkovsky’s release ahead of Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, clearing a public relations obstacle for the Kremlin’s spectacle on the world stage.

Political challengers and defected federal security agents have not fared as well. Alexander Litvinenko, an FSB officer and organized crime investigator who accused the intelligence service in 1998 of ordering political assassinations, fled to British asylum in 2000 after two failed attempts by the Kremlin to prosecute him for “exceeding his authority.” In exile, Litvinenko wrote books accusing the Russian secret services of staging the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia to pressure the Kremlin to elevate a security hardliner, Putin, to succeed the enfeebled Yeltsin. Six years into Putin’s leadership and more exposés from Litvinenko of murderous missions in the Kremlin, the whistleblower died in November 2006, three weeks after being poisoned with polonium-210. Nine years later, a British public inquiry blamed two Russian secret service agents for the killing.

The most brazen political assassination, the Feb. 27, 2015, gunning down of former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in the shadow of the Kremlin, eliminated the most high-profile critic of Putin’s regime and his most influential political rival.

The systematic eradication of freedoms was interspersed with deadly terrorism from Putin’s earliest days in power.

A commuter train blast in December 2003 in Russia’s Stavropol region killed 46 people and injured dozens. In February 2004, a Moscow subway suicide bombing killed 39 and injured more than 100, and two passenger jets were downed by simultaneously detonated bombs on August 24. Six days later, Chechen militants demanding withdrawal of Russian troops from their territory seized a school in the North Caucasus town of Beslan and took more than 1,000 students, teachers and parents hostage. The two-day battle with Russian security forces ended with 334 dead, most of them children. The deadliest civilian toll from terrorism since independence, Beslan has been burned into public consciousness as “Russia’s 9/11.”

Each strike by terrorists—most of them homegrown—has strengthened Putin and his repressive security apparatus, justifying the harsh limitations on Russians’ rights to protest, assemble or criticize the regime. Repression begets retaliation, feeding the vicious cycle of violence justifying repression.

The March 22 massacre at the Crocus venue comes amid increasing spillover from Putin’s war in Ukraine. Drone and missile strikes have damaged major Russian oil facilities and fighter planes parked at military airfields far beyond Ukraine’s borders. By British military intelligence measure, the war has killed or seriously injured 355,000 Russians in two years.

The Kremlin’s recent announcement that another 150,000 recruits will be called up has the Russian citizenry on edge, despite constitutional restrictions on deploying conscripts abroad.

A team of U.S. and European academics noted in “Putin’s Hidden Weakness,” an article in Foreign Affairs last week, that their Russian Election Study showed many Russians support Putin but not his war. They contend another mobilization will fuel social discontent.

“Men from rural areas are far more likely to be mobilized than those from major cities. And wives and mothers of soldiers, who are particularly concerned about high casualty rates and eager for their loved ones to be rotated home from the front, have already become a key source of public protest against the government’s war strategy,” the academics contend.

For the time being, the authors conclude, the Kremlin’s strategy for avoiding a new mobilization “places the principal combat burden on politically marginalized groups—ethnic minorities, the rural poor, and convicts—and to pay big salaries and bonuses to those who volunteer to fight.” 

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


  1. Oh, now, how bad could Putin be, really? Trump seems to like him a lot. Enough, even, to order his mealy minions in Congress to thwart further aide to Ukraine. Trump is famously “transactional” in his dealings with matters more in his own interests than those of our country. Given that, what does Putin get out of Trump’s congressional blockade of military aid to Ukraine and The Donald’s constant maligning of our NATO alliance? That is clear enough. But what does Trump get? Likely, very much, perhaps beginning with laundered ruples-into-dollars and the onslaught of Putin’s disinformation forces working to undermine Biden and American confidence in government as a whole. The extent of Trump’s traitorous turn against American interests is so egregious that there may be something else still gurgling just under the surface. Maybe something so ugly that it haunts even Trump, who normally shrugs off truth of his misdeeds like a drop of hamburger grease on his tie. Perhaps locked away in a Kremlin vault, with the key in Putin’s pocket.

  2. Isn’t the problem that this catalogue of horrors could not happen without a level of support from Russian ctizens that may, like Trump’s MAGA true-believers be the very reason for Putin’s success.The country spans 11 time zones. Half the country sleeps while the other half is awake. Control and management of information is simplified. In China before the internet, albeit a censored and cntrollled environment, up until the Xi regime, the government annually reported reported the levels of public protests and demonstrations. 100,000 to 200,000 were the official figures. That was an open society compared to Putin’s Russian where there are likely many local protests and demonstrations that never rise to an identifiable level, plus if exist their effect appears to be between zero and nil. The truth seems to be that Putin knows his people. They may not like what he is doing, they may support his regime, as you point out we are likely not to know and can only conclude that he has the necessary support to swing his broadsword of control.

  3. Russian citizens keeping their heads down and guarding what they can of their own family, work and security is not agreement with Putin and his megalomania — it’s self-preservation in the absence of any alternative survival strategy. This is not analogous to Americans following Trump’s dog-whistling on white supremacy and demonizing migrants. We have alternative narratives (free media) to what Truth Social and Fox and the other oracles of autocracy offer. Russians outside of the imperialist hierarchy can be forgiven for having no counter narrative after a quarter century of captive media.

  4. Thank you for this article, for hunting up the best background and current information and weaving it all together for us to understand the situation in Ukraine and Russia with a little more clarity.

    I admire and appreciate your hard work.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.