How Will Putin Respond to the Terrorist Attack in Moscow?

On Friday night, at least four men stormed Crocus City Hall, a concert venue in Moscow’s northwestern outskirts, gunning down victims as they ran, screaming, through the building’s cavernous foyer. Those trapped inside captured the grim scene on their cell phones: assailants fanning out with weapons drawn, bursts of automatic gunfire, bodies slumped on the floor. The attackers set fire to the auditorium, a blaze that spread quickly. Smoke and flames engulfed the building. According to a Telegram channel close to Russian law enforcement, police found twenty-eight bodies in a single bathroom; another fourteen were recovered in an emergency stairwell. In total, a hundred and thirty-seven people are dead—the most killed by an act of terror in Russia since 2004, when more than three hundred people were killed after militants seized a school in Beslan.

The act of terror was, above all, exactly that: a ghoulish spasm of violence reminiscent of the worst attacks in Europe in recent years, such as the storming of the Bataclan theatre, in Paris, in 2015, where a hundred and thirty people were killed. But in Russia, after twenty-four years of Vladimir Putin’s rule—he just extended his reign by another six years in elections last week—and two years into its war with Ukraine, the attack may carry its own political significance.

Lapses in security can be especially problematic for would-be strongmen. After all, Putin’s implicit appeal to the Russian people rests on the very idea of a muscular, unified, well-resourced state capable of protecting them. He began his rise to power on the back of a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in Chechnya, and now implores the nation not only to rally around the conflict with Ukraine but to participate in what he presents as an era-defining struggle against a collective West intent on Russia’s destruction.

Friday night’s attack is an awful, and uncomfortable, swerve from that narrative. Within hours, an ISIS affiliate known as ISIS-K (the “K” stands for Khorasan province, a reference to Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia) claimed that its fighters were responsible for “killing and wounding hundreds and causing great destruction to the place before they withdrew to their bases safely.” ISIS-K, which has carried out terror attacks in Afghanistan and Iran, has long targeted Russia in its rhetoric, citing the Kremlin’s extensive bombing campaign in Syria and its fight against militants in the Muslim-majority Russian republics in the North Caucasus. Earlier this month, Russian security services killed two men who, officials said, were planning to carry out an attack on a Moscow synagogue on behalf of ISIS-K. Over the weekend, ISIS-affiliated social-media channels released gruesome body-cam footage, which shows the terrorists firing at people inside the hall; one of them approaches a wounded man lying on the ground and slits his throat with a knife. A voice yells, “Kill them! Show no mercy!” and “The infidels will be defeated.”

The attack appeared to fit with a scenario U.S. intelligence agencies had been warning about for weeks. In early March, the U.S. Embassy in Russia said it was “monitoring reports that extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow,” including concerts. On Friday, Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, confirmed the existence of such intelligence, adding that “the U.S. Government also shared this information with Russian authorities in accordance with its longstanding ‘duty to warn’ policy.”

Putin, however, seems to have dismissed this alert as a ruse or a provocation. At a meeting with top F.S.B. officials just three days before the terror attack, Putin addressed the intelligence warnings from Western governments. “All this resembles outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society,” he said. In his remarks to the F.S.B., Putin was much more focussed on the war in Ukraine (“The most critical and intense aspect of your work today is undoubtedly related to the special military operation”) and linked any mention of the terrorist threats to efforts by the West to weaken Russia (“the same Western special services which are behind their manifestations”).

A horrific—and, in some ways, predictable—ISIS attack that shatters a sense of security in Russia’s capital does not fit with Putin’s political obsessions. Members of Russia’s vast security apparatus are first and foremost agents of regime protection. The Islamic State is included on the country’s register of terrorist and extremist organizations, but so is the political network of Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian prison last month. On Friday, the day of the attack, the Kremlin added what it vaguely refers to as the worldwide “LGBT movement” to the same list.

In February, a report by the investigative-news site Proekt, which the Russian state has deemed “undesirable,” counted ten thousand people who faced criminal prosecution in politically motivated cases in the course of Putin’s current six-year Presidential term—surpassing the comparable figures under the Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. Ruslan Leviev, an open-source researcher who was convicted in absentia for his coverage of Russian military operations and is now based in the U.S., remarked, “In a country where counterterrorist special forces are chasing commentators from the Internet who said something wrong about Putin or wrote about Bucha, terrorists will always feel free.”

Unsurprisingly, Putin has tried to connect what, by all accounts, is an act of ISIS terror to Ukraine. In a nationwide address on Saturday, he spoke of a “horrific and savage act of terrorism” but never mentioned by name the actual group—ISIS—that had claimed responsibility. “They attempted to escape and were heading toward Ukraine,” he said of the four suspects, adding that “a window was prepared for them on the Ukrainian side to cross the state border.” An F.S.B. statement said that the suspects had “appropriate contacts” in Ukraine. Meduza, an independent Russian outlet, reported that the Kremlin had instructed state media to emphasize “traces” of Ukrainian involvement in the attack.

It has become fashionable to label every attack inside Russia as a false flag, a decoy operation launched by Russia’s security services. (Ukraine’s own military intelligence agency went for this theory, calling Friday’s attack “a planned and deliberate provocation by the Russian special services at the behest of Putin.”) There is compelling, if far from conclusive, evidence of involvement by the F.S.B. in a series of apartment bombings, in 1999, that paved the way for Putin to become President. But, in the years since, the truth is often more banal: the Putin state directs incredible resources to, and has become quite proficient at, protecting itself, but is less capable—perhaps even less interested—in protecting those over whom it rules.

As for what Putin does now, the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan may be instructive. In the aftermath of that tragedy, Putin moved not to reform Russia’s security agencies, for example, or to hold an independent inquiry on the security forces’ decision to fire heavy explosives at the school but, rather, to roll back nascent democratic reforms. The Kremlin cancelled direct elections of regional governors in favor of Presidential appointments; it also abolished single-mandate districts in the Duma, removing the last independent voices in parliament. All of which is to say, an attack does not have to be a planned provocation for Putin to look to spin it to his political advantage.

Still, it’s hard to imagine the Kremlin doing more to empower the F.S.B. in its hunt for enemies, real or imagined, or to further erode Russia’s democratic institutions. Similarly, can Russia realistically escalate its attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure, given that, on Friday, hours before the terror attack, dozens of Russian missile and drone strikes hit energy facilities across the country? Putin could instead try to have Russians forget about the horrors at Crocus City Hall, or at least move on without much fanfare, lest they arrive at difficult questions for him and the state. Or he may attempt, as he did in the first hours after the attack, to replace the prospect of real evil with a more suitable enemy. Wartime creates its own logic of expediency; the same is true for late-stage autocracies obsessed with their survival. Putin, then, may well indeed find a response to the massacre, even if it has little to do with those who carried it out. ♦

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