The Kerch Bridge, symbolically linking Crimea to Russia, was deeply opposed by Ukraine. While investigators have yet to uncover the motives behind the attack, what will this mean for Crimea?
Four and a half years after Crimea’s annexation into Russia, the first signs of a clandestine resistance could be emerging.
A makeshift bomb went off in a school building in the city of Kerch on Wednesday.
A lone gunman detonated the device, then opened fire with a shotgun, killing 19 students and wounding at least 50, before taking his own life on the morning of October 17.
In the panic of the shooting, some students reported more than one shooter.
Investigators have yet to rule out the possibility that others were involved.
Russia’s National Antiterror Committee initially classified the incident as a terror attack, feeding into long-standing fears of resistance and rebellion by Russian authorities and Crimean residents.
Later in the day, the police re-classified the incident, downgrading it from an “act of terrorism” to a “group murder,” obviously an attempt to play down its political implications.
Still, as investigators have pointed out, it’s too early to completely rule out that the tragedy is purely of a personal nature.
The major questions the investigators, security services and Crimean residents are now asking, is how and where the teenager was able to obtain military firearms and three explosive devices without drawing anyone's attention.
Police, which found and destroyed two more bombs on the school premises, said that they were searching for one or more accomplices of the 18-year-old gunman Vladislav Roslyakov.
Roslyakov was a senior at Kerch Polytechnic College, and enrolled at the school in 2015, according to Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee.
His classmates described him as quiet, closed-off, uncommunicative, and interested in 'maniacs' and serial killers. His parents are divorced, and were taken in for questioning after his identity was determined.
Reuters reports that Roslyakov set off a bomb in the Kerch Polytechnic College’s cafeteria. After detonating an explosive device in the canteen, Roslyakov opened fire on pupils and teachers before committing suicide as security services closed in.
Speaking to local media sources, Olga Grebnnikova, school director said, “There are bodies everywhere, children’s bodies everywhere. It was a real act of terrorism. They burst in five or 10 minutes after I’d left. They blew up everything in the hall, glass was flying. They ran about throwing some kind of explosives around, and then ran around the second floor with guns, opened the office doors, and killed anyone they could find.”
In the absence of detailed information, Crimean and Russian observers inevitably came to the conclusion that it was a “mass murder.”
Vladimir Jarallah, a Crimean political scientist and security expert says there is also potential that the shooting was facilitated by external agents.
Though Moscow has never denied that the Black Sea peninsula is a potentially problematic region, the prospect of it transforming into the Russian 'Ulster' has consistently been one of the Kremlin's nightmares.
Since the “referendum” in March 2014, which legalised the transfer of the Ukrainian province into the Russian Federation, Russian security services have reported dozens of failed attempts at “sabotage” and “subversion” there.
The most internationally publicised Crimean “counter-terror” operation executed by the Russian Security Service (FSB) was an arrest of a Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. He was charged with preparing for a terror attack in Crimea and sentenced to 20-year jail term
From time to time, the FSB also reported arrests of Ukrainian “saboteurs” and Crimean Tatar “extremists.”
Still, the Russian public mostly took those reports with a grain of skepticism, often considering them exercises in public relations rather than actual successful operations.
With the bombing in Kerch on the peninsula’s eastern tip, their skepticism may not have been unfounded.
Crimean residents now question why the security forces failed to notice a teenager preparing for a public massacre if so many arrests had been made, and how was he able to stay off the radar of the Russian secret service?
More critically, was anyone behind the attack and how can future tragedies like this be averted?
These questions are difficult to answer, Vladimir Jarallah admits.
“Here in Crimea, the hidden confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian Special Services has never ceased. They wrestle over collecting classified information, testing sabotage opportunities and their prevention, as well as recruiting assets and disclosing them,” he said, describing the intelligence and counter-counter-intelligence routine of the disputed territory.
According to Jarallah, the FSB uncovered a score of Ukrainian career intelligence officers who stayed in Crimea after 2014 disguised as locals.
“The peninsula is very small, and everyone knows everyone here. So people were surprised when this or that person had been arrested. It was obvious that the arrested individuals had stayed in Crimea to continue their work for Ukrainian intelligence, so why had they remained at large for such a long time?”
Crimeans believe there are so many Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) dormant agents as well as possible double agents in the peninsula, and even tell a joke about it.
The joke goes, a clandestine meeting is attended by five “guerrillas.” The next morning, the joke continues, the FSB receive six reports about the meeting.
People here firmly believe that the attack was inevitable and that it was only a matter of time before it took place.
As the preliminary investigation suggested, the Kerch bombing is unlikely to be a direct Ukrainian sabotage operation.
"Whatever the Russian state media says about the 'moral degradation' of Kiev’s regime, it is beneath the dignity of career officers to throw explosives into school buildings," he says.
Ukrainian intelligence may well have a number of “volunteers” in the peninsula who are not on the SBU payroll he concedes, and as such, wouldn’t compromise them in case of a failed operation.
“The SBU doesn’t even need to hire and equip those volunteers with guns. It is sufficient to not prevent them from masterminding an attack, encouraging them psychologically while maintaining distance formally,” the Crimean political expert said.
He doesn’t rule out the possibility that the Kerch bombing could be perpetuated by a single “partisan” with no links to either the FSB or SBU.
“That could well be just a common local who, for some reason, either political or personal, suddenly went berserk, and vented his aggression onto the nearest site available,” Jarallah suggested well before that version of events was announced by the police.
However, the very location of the bombing may hint that the attack was potentially not a random one.
Why attack Kerch?
At worst, the gunman was groomed by someone conscious of geographical symbolism.
“If someone plans to arrange a politically motivated terror attack in some region, it’d be most logical to do it in a regional capital or military base. But on Wednesday, the bomb didn’t explode in the capital Simferopol, or in the naval base of Sevastopol. So why Kerch, then?”
Because Kerch is the town where the bridge connecting the peninsula with mainland Russia begins, the expert continued.
“The bridge has been the hottest spot in and around Crimea, and is a bone of contention between Moscow and Kiev. If my suggestion is correct, there’s no sense in thinking that the bombing was carried out by an 'individual' attacker who only wanted revenge on his girlfriend,” the expert explained.
Kerch, at the eastern point of Crimea, is home to the Kerch Bridge, a $7 billion 20 km road opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 2018.
The construction was deeply opposed by Ukraine, given its symbolism as a physical link to Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014.
Jarallah also brushed off the possibility that the bomber could be a member of the Crimean Tatars’ community.
“The Crimean Tatar have ill feelings toward Moscow historically. They don’t hide their anti-Russian sentiments. But every one of them understands that they must be as quiet as the grave. Otherwise, this will mean the end of any dreams the Tatar people have to restore their lands – a cause they’ve been struggling for since Gorbachev times,” Jarallah concluded.
The jury is still out, but if the shooting is found to have been instigated by other parties, it could mark the beginning of a renewed spiral into violence for the region.