MOSCOW — Brazen suicide bombings in the center of Moscow on Monday confronted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with a grave challenge to his record of curbing terrorism, and raised the possibility that he will respond as he has in the past by significantly tightening control over the government.
The explosions, set off by female suicide bombers in two landmark subway stations, killed at least 38 people and wounded at least 60 others, raising fears that the Muslim insurgency in southern Russia, including Chechnya, was once again being brought to the country's heart.
As smoke billowed through the subway tunnels not far from the Kremlin and dazed survivors streamed out of the vast transportation system, al-Qaida-affiliated Web sites were abuzz with celebration of the attacks by the two female suicide bombers.
World leaders, including President Barack Obama, condemned the attacks.
The attacks during the morning rush hour seemed all but designed to taunt the security services, which have been championed by Putin in the decade since he took power in Russia. The first one occurred at the Lubyanka subway station, next to the headquarters of the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB that Putin led in the late 1990s.
Putin, the former president and current prime minister, has built his reputation in part on his success in bottling up the Muslim insurgency in southern Russia and preventing major attacks in the country's population centers in recent years. If the bombings herald a renewed campaign by insurgents in major cities, then that legacy may be tarnished.
The attacks could also throw into doubt the policies of Putin's protege, Medvedev, who has spoken in favor of liberalizing the government, increasing political pluralism and dealing with terrorism by addressing the root causes of the insurgency.
Putin on Monday limited his comments largely to vows to destroy the terrorists behind the attacks, who have not been identified but who the Russian authorities said they suspect came from Chechnya or neighboring regions in the Caucasus Mountains. But when Putin last faced a spate of such violence, in 2004, he reacted with a sweeping reorganization of the government that he said would unite the country against terrorism but also concentrated power in the Kremlin.
He pushed through laws that eliminated the direct election of regional governors, turning them into presidential appointees, and made it all but impossible for political independents to be elected to the federal parliament. He also increased the strength of the security services.
Russian police have killed several militant leaders in the Caucasus recently, which raised fears of retaliatory strikes. Last month, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov warned that "the war is coming to their cities."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.