Details are scarce, but we know for now that two dozen or more people have been injured in multiple bombing attacks in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk. The first bomb struck mid-day at a crowded trolleybus stop in the city center, and three more explosions are believed to have occurred in central locations soon afterward. Throughout the afternoon and evening, local residents and security services have been seen rounding up trashcans from public places, for fear they might be used to conceal another bomb.
How can these shocking acts be explained? More information will surely become available as an official investigation gets underway, but for now, there are several very troubling possibilities, each of which at least bears careful consideration by the Ukrainian authorities and the public.
The bombings could simply have been random acts of violence, or the work of criminal gangs. Last year, criminals set off smaller bombs in another eastern Ukrainian city, and threatened much larger explosions if a ransom of 4 million Euros was not paid. Bombings and shootings are relatively common in connection with Ukraine’s criminal underworld and endlessly feuding oligarchs, however it is unlikely that such large and indiscriminate attacks were meant simply to assassinate any particular individual.
The chaos around these bombings might have helped to obscure a targeted killing, but it will also surely attract far greater police attention as a result. The attacks might also have been a message meant for one of Dnepropetrovsk’s leading oligarchs, such as Viktor Pinchuk or Ihor Kolomoysky, but given the scale and indiscriminate nature of the explosions, that too seems unlikely.
It seems more likely—and the Ukrainian authorities, at least, have already concluded—that the bombings were acts of terrorism. Some Ukrainians are already suggesting that homegrown terrorists set off the bombs to disrupt the Euro 2012 Soccer championships, scheduled for June (though no matches are planned in Dnepropetrovsk). Ukraine has not previously been the victim of international terrorism, but Dnepropetrovsk, and Ukraine in general, may simply have appeared to opportunistic attackers as a soft target, with relatively lax security and police who could be easily paid off to ignore the warning signs of a plot.
To radicals from outside Europe, the subtle distinctions between EU members like Spain and the U.K. and former Soviet states like Ukraine may not matter much. In fact, on the eve of the Euro 2012 tournament, Ukraine may have seemed like an ideal high profile European target.
If international terrorists were responsible, they might have picked Ukraine for more specific political reasons. From 2003 to 2008, Ukraine had some 1,600 soldiers in Iraq, and it is one of only two post-Soviet countries contributing troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, though Ukraine’s contingent numbers less than two dozen. Ukraine might also have been a victim due to its close association with Russia, a country on Islamic extremists’ list of enemies because of the ongoing Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus and Russia’s staunch support for the al-Assad regime in Syria. Although Ukraine watchers see relations with Moscow as unusually strained right now, Al Qaeda’s thinking on this point may be a bit less precise.
On the other hand, conspiracy theories are popular in Ukraine and some may imagine a more direct Russian role in this tragedy, precisely because of the two countries’ strained relations. Ukraine has refused to join Russia’s customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and has erected barriers to prevent Russia’s Gazprom from gaining control of Ukraine’s network of transit pipelines. Moreover, although President Yanukovych has taken NATO membership for Ukraine explicitly off the table, he continues to push for EU integration.
Some Russians have argued that the infamous apartment bombings in 1999, on the eve of Putin’s elevation to the presidency, were actually orchestrated by Russian security services to drum up public support for the war in Chechnya. If the authorities were capable of such brutality on Russian soil, why not use the same means to pressure and embarrass Ukraine, which might be forced to scale back the upcoming soccer tournament or turn to Russia for help?
On the theme of cynical political motivations, opposition politicians have already begun to lambast the government for failing to prevent the attack, and even to insinuate the involvement of government figures. For the embattled Yanukovych administration, there may actually be a silver lining to this tragedy, if fear and insecurity drive Ukrainians to back the president’s Party of Regions in parliamentary elections planned for October.
That the attackers targeted a largely Russian-speaking eastern city that has been a Party of Regions stronghold might also stir up fears about western Ukrainian radical nationalism, as in the 2010 bombing of an orthodox church, and the attacks on World War II veterans by radical nationalists last year. At the very least, the bombings have already displaced this month’s previous top story, the failing health of imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, though neither headline is exactly good news for the government.
The tragedy that has struck Ukraine is a reminder that acts of terror are possible anywhere and at any time. When world leaders call to offer condolences and assistance, they should also remind Ukraine that the most powerful response to terrorism is to deny its desired effect. Despite recent setbacks, Ukraine has made progress toward reforms that will safeguard citizens’ personal, economic and political freedom. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Ukraine has an opportunity to show that pursuit of justice, security, and freedom are not mutually exclusive.