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Interview: Putin, The Terror Attack, And The Threat Whose Name He 'Dare Not Speak'

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen chairing a meeting to discusss measures in response to the terrorist attacks at the Crocus City Hall concert venue via a video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on March 25.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen chairing a meeting to discusss measures in response to the terrorist attacks at the Crocus City Hall concert venue via a video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on March 25.

Gunmen entered a concert hall just outside Moscow on March 22 and opened fire, killing at least 139 people in the deadliest terror attack in Russia since the hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, in the North Caucasus, in September 2004. The extremist group Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which came five days after President Vladimir Putin secured a new term in a tightly controlled election marred by evidence of massive fraud.

Russia expert Mark Galeotti is a political analyst, author, and honorary professor at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) in London. RFE/RL's Steve Gutterman spoke to him about the Crocus City Hall attack on the March 25 edition of The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. (Subscribe here.)

RFE/RL: This was the first major attack of its kind in Russia since, I believe, 2017. And by far the deadliest in almost 20 years, since the Beslan school hostage crisis in September 2004, which ended with more than 330 people dead, more than half of them children. Mark, for my first question, I'm going to refer back to Beslan. After that attack, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin put some of the blame on Washington and the West, insinuating they were supporting Islamic militants in the North Caucasus in an effort to weaken or destroy Russia -- the latter part of which has been, of course, a common accusation or theme of Putin's over the ensuing 20 years: that the West is out to to hold Russia back and essentially destroy it.

In his first public remarks on the Crocus City Hall attack, which came more than 18 hours after the attack, [Putin] claimed without providing evidence that Ukraine had provided a “window” on the border between Russia and Ukraine to enable the attackers to try to escape. And there's been plenty of propaganda in the Russian media pointing the finger at Ukraine. Kyiv has adamantly denied any involvement. And of course, Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility.

The United States has indicated that it believes IS was behind it. Mark, what do you think about these Russian insinuations? What about those who say Russia could have staged this as a false flag? After all, Putin has used terror attacks in the past as a pretext to clamp down on dissent inside Russia.

Mark Galeotti:
We tend to obviously come back to these false flag allegations, particularly because of the 1999 apartment bombings that in so many ways eased the way for a relatively unknown Putin to become president. However, just because there was that one particular case, we shouldn't assume everything that happens is a false flag -- as, to be perfectly honest, some people in the wonderful and deranged world of social media do.

If one looks at many of the kind of the specific data points that people claim demonstrate that there was something iffy about it -- let’s very quickly break it down. The idea that, "Oh, well, there were no security guards at Crocus." Well, we know that there were. The Agalarovs, the owners, have said so, and at least one [security guard], I think, was killed in the attack. And we have other cases of security guards leading people to safety and so forth. So that's not true.

LISTEN: Author and analyst Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, joins host Steve Gutterman on The Week Ahead In Russia podcast:

A Horrific Postelection Attack
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[As to] the idea that it's impossible given the density of security cameras and everything else in Moscow -- well, let's face it, even highly secure areas are vulnerable. And particularly Crocus -- I mean, it’s not actually in Moscow; it's in this sort of commuter belt town, just outside the Ring Road. So it's not really in the main security zone.

As regards the suggestion that it took an hour for any emergency services to arrive, even though there's a base of the National Guard's OMON police just about a 10-minute drive down the road, in fact, it seems to have taken more like 30 to 35 minutes for them to arrive, and the terrorists were out in 20 to 25 minutes.

More to the point, it escapes the notice of people that these things take time; it takes time for people to raise the alarm, for people to realize quite what's going on, for orders to be given for the special weapons forces to be mobilized, issued their guns, loaded up into vans, and so forth. Actually, basically what we have seen is really what one could have expected.

One always has to look at motivation. Putin at the moment, I don't think, needs pretexts or mandates: He’s just awarded himself, after all, an 87 percent vote in the presidential election. He, frankly, is doing every vicious thing he can to the Ukrainians, pretty much. It's not like there's some key escalation. I think it's highly unlikely that this will be used as a pretext for some kind of national mobilization unless he was already planning it.

Given that, actually, he ends up looking quite weak out of this, because there's not going to be some kind of great cathartic outcome. I think we can set aside the false flag notion, just as we can set aside the Ukraine element. To be sure, both HUR (Ukrainian military intelligence) and the SBU (the Ukrainian Security Service) have been carrying out what we could call, sort of, terrorist tactic operations within Russia, sometimes precisely by recruiting dupes or blackmailing them into attacks. But nonetheless…there is absolutely no evidence Ukraine had any responsibility in this. In that case, this is just classic Putin just using it as an opportunity to demonize them.

In fact, this is, I think, exactly what it looks like: Islamic State Khorasan, which is the sort of affiliate in Afghanistan, Pakistan, [and] Central Asia, has long regarded the Russian “crusaders” as being their main target; they carried out a variety of terrorist attacks in Russia over recent years, and indeed seem to have been behind…a case on the 7th of March that the FSB prevented, which was going to be an armed attack on a synagogue in Kaluga.

These are people who clearly have the means to carry out terrorist operations, particularly armed terrorist operations. They clearly have the desire to do so, and indeed, not only have they claimed credit, but they have also demonstrated a certain amount of information about the attack.

RFE/RL: You mentioned in your podcast yesterday that Putin, when he finally did come out and make remarks about this attack…made no mention of Islamic State, let alone Islamic State-Khorasan, even though IS had already claimed responsibility. (In subsequent comments aired late on March 25, Putin said the attack had been carried out by “radical Islamists” but suggested without evidence that Ukraine and the West may have played roles.) And I guess the only country or entity that he did mention was Ukraine…. There had also been a U.S. warning a couple of weeks earlier about potential IS attacks, although I guess that covered the 48-hour period, so it was [some] time ago. Why do you think Putin avoided mention of Islamic State?

It's a combination of things. It may well be precisely embarrassment, having so publicly just a few days earlier criticized America for its warning, saying that in fact it was all a sort of a provocation and attempt at intimidation. Maybe he didn't actually want to admit, "Yeah, OK, fair enough, maybe it was Islamic State after all."

Secondly, I think there is a clear political desire to use this precisely to vilify the Ukrainians. You know, we've got to remember that his war in Ukraine is really not a broadly popular war. That’s not to say that most Russians are actively opposed to it, but certainly the actual support for it is small and probably -- it’s hard to tell -- diminishing. So from his point of view, anytime he can adduce something as evidence that Kyiv is in the grip of a neo-Nazi terroristic state, that’s good -- for him.

Perhaps most importantly, there is actually a serious policy dilemma here. If he says, "Yes, this was Islamic State, operating through the medium of Central Asian residents and guest workers," then, firstly, it aggravates racial tensions, which actually is a problematic issue in a multiethnic, multi-confessional state like the Russian Federation where 10 percent of the population is Muslim. But it also actually then begs the question: What are you going to do about it?

Mark Galeotti: "What do Russians internalize about the threats facing them? Do they actually think everything is about Ukraine and the West? Do they actually think this is about some kind of nasty, insidious terrorist attack? Or do they actually begin to think of Putin as, frankly, failing?"
Mark Galeotti: "What do Russians internalize about the threats facing them? Do they actually think everything is about Ukraine and the West? Do they actually think this is about some kind of nasty, insidious terrorist attack? Or do they actually begin to think of Putin as, frankly, failing?"

The inevitable corollary would be some kind of crackdown on Central Asians, which as we know from past experience would be handled in a fairly thuggish and insensitive way. At the moment, Russia cannot afford to alienate and drive out these Central Asian workers -- it needs them. It needs them to do the work that frankly, there aren't Russians to do, or that Russians don't want to do.

At the moment, there is a labor crisis: Between the impact of the war and the need to have the defense factories running at full pelt, there is actually a shortage of labor. So, to actually exacerbate that by risking driving Central Asians out of the country -- that would directly impact his war effort and also have diplomatic implications with his relationships with the Central Asian countries, which are feeling much, much less intimidated by Moscow now, and which Moscow needs because these are crucial routes for sanctions-busting smuggling into Russia of all kinds of spare parts, materials, microchips, whatever, that the war effort needs.

In this respect, I think he was afraid, frankly, of pointing the finger at the Central Asians: They have become in some ways the new Navalny: the threat which he dare not speak their name. Therefore he just defaulted to these, frankly, rather lackluster and unconvincing claims about some sort of unspecified Ukrainian connection.

RFE/RL: My second question has a few strands…. One, why has this happened now? Two, does Russia…now face a major new or revived threat of militant attacks? And three, how are Putin and the government likely to respond…both within Russia and in terms of any actions abroad or any change in the way Moscow is waging its war against Ukraine?

We have to recognize that Russia has continued to face a terrorist threat -- again, it just tends not to be in the news, because it's not as kind of horrifically high profile and bloody, or else, as with that synagogue attack, they are forestalled by the authorities, but this is actually a constant, low-level issue.

Why now? I think these [kinds of attacks] tend to be opportunistic rather than anything else…. In many cases, it’s just when there are people who have been groomed or who have radicalized themselves to the pitch where they're willing to carry out an attack, where often the odds of survival or escape are actually relatively limited....

One can point to certainly some factors that might have contributed. It may well be…that, in fact, the security forces have been rather distracted by the two priorities coming down from the Kremlin, which is Ukrainian sabotage attacks and the domestic political opposition. But I think that only goes so far.

The FSB is a pretty massive organization. It's not like it doesn't still have people working on the counterterrorism beat. This is not, for example, like we saw after 9/11, where there was this massive reorientation of the American internal law and order and security apparatus toward counterterrorism, which meant you did suddenly get people being yanked off, for example, the Russia counterespionage desks, and being hurriedly retrained and sent into new expanded counterterrorism elements. We've not had that kind of structural reorientation of the FSB, and so forth.

So, you know, I think ultimately, it's just one of these things: Unfortunately, the depressingly banal answer is these things will happen, and they will happen when they happen, because sometimes the terrorists will get through.

[As for] in the context of how Russia will respond, we can almost think of this in three dimensions. One of them is, assuming that they keep pushing this notion of the Ukraine dimension -- and it's quite interesting that, yes, this is very much coming out of the usual toxic, outspoken Kremlin talking heads, on television and the like, and also in the more tabloid press. But actually, the more professional observers and commentators are being a lot more restrained about this. They're certainly not saying Ukraine was behind this; they are maybe accepting that there was an element of facilitating, but….

I have a suspicion that there is a degree of embarrassment within the more professional community about this fairly blatantly false claim. So what we might get is some kind of extra-performative attack, as we've seen in the past, like when the Kerch bridge was downed. But maybe it will be in the context of the current spate of Russian missile and drone attacks…. It probably won't really change anything…. In Ukraine, there isn't really much scope for escalation.

WATCH: Russian authorities have charged four Tajik suspects over the deadly mass shooting on March 22 at a Moscow concert hall. News of the arrests appears to have fueled a spike in xenophobic incidents targeting Tajiks and other migrants in Russia, ranging from attacks and arson to sweeping detentions of new arrivals at a Moscow airport.

As Tajik Suspects Face Charges For Moscow Attack, Other Migrants Face Backlash In Russia
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In terms of domestic security, a lot will depend on how the politics of the situation emerges. We've seen these horrific videos of security forces dealing with the alleged terrorists, one of whom seems to have his genitals attached to an electric battery, and the other who seems to have had part of his ear cut off and put in his mouth.

I suppose in part this may be an attempt to assuage the angers of the Russian population, which are understandable. If it doesn't work, if people are still calling for action, then just simply in order to satisfy the baying of the majority Putin may well be willing to actually countenance some kind of crackdown on a minority. So we still may well see him forced into a position where he has to do some kind of performative bloodletting. I think he's trying to avoid it, but if that's what he'll do, that's what he'll do.

The third real issue in terms of the response is this: It was striking when, before the terrorist attack, we had presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov make this interview with [Russian media outlet] Argumenty i Fakty, which caused a certain amount of commotion because he used the “w” word related to Ukraine: the word “war.” Now some people are saying, "Oh, well, this was Peskov admitting that Russia is at war." Well, that's not actually what he was saying. He was simply reiterating the wider question about the fact that as far as the Kremlin is concerned, what's happening in Ukraine -- the "special military operation," so-called -- is just one part, one front of a wider war with the West.

Putin had used that language in his state of-the-union [address on February 29] and so forth. It's nothing new. But the interesting thing about Peskov’s interview, by my lights, was his mention of this notion of this war being important in terms of shaping Russians’ sense of their internal mobilization. That's a key element: The idea that Russians now think of themselves in a wartime footing, where there is no more middle ground between patriots and traitors, and everyone must push all their efforts.

In that context, the interesting thing is: What do Russians internalize about the threats facing them? Do they actually think everything is about Ukraine and the West? Do they actually think this is about some kind of nasty, insidious terrorist attack? Or do they actually begin to think of Putin as, frankly, failing? He's already failed as the Great Provider because their quality of life is beginning to be impinged. Is he also failing as the Great Defender?

And if that begins to take root, then I think we'll see the Kremlin being pushed into even more extreme actions to try and demonstrate to Russians that it is indeed still able to protect them from all the enemies besieging them. But the point is, these are all things we're going to have to watch play out in the coming weeks.

RFE/RL: What kind of actions might those be, do you think, if Putin and the Kremlin feel that Russians are starting to see him as a failure? There have been plenty of things that have happened since the summer -- there was [Wagner chief Yevgeny] Prigozhin’s mutiny, and now this attack. What do you think Putin might try to do to reassure Russians that he is the Great Protector?

The interesting thing is that all the options are pretty much self-harming ones. Obviously, we can expect a lot of security theater, we can expect a lot more uniforms on the streets, and document checks and all that kind of thing, which actually have very little effect in terms of real security but make people believe things are being done.

Beyond that, though -- especially if it becomes harder and harder to sustain the Ukraine connection. When you've visibly got four Central Asians as your assassins, and also a sort of support network who apparently are also largely or entirely drawn from Central Asian origins, people will quickly enough draw their own conclusions.

Already, if you look at Russian social media, the Islamic State dimension and the ethnic dimension is being played up a lot. So, Putin is not able to capture the national debate in that way. If he's going to act against that -- I mentioned about the risks of some kind of crackdown on Central Asians. We've also got people arguing that there should be an end to uncontrolled migration -- not that it is uncontrolled migration, but you know, actually making it harder for Central Asians to come to Russia, [with] more security checks and document checks and so forth. That might be done.

But if so, again, it's going to make it harder and less economically viable for people to come to Russia. We might even actually see people wanting to review the visa regulations relating to particularly Tajikistan, because the four [alleged suspects Russian courts have ordered held in pretrial detention] are all of Tajik extraction, which is already worrying and annoying the Tajik authorities.

We may well see a series of moves which are essentially designed to satisfy Russians, but which in practice will both damage the Russian economy and damage Russia’s standing with its crucial Central Asian allies.

RFE/RL: Another question about the U.S. warning: Putin really, as you said, dismissed and kind of angrily criticized the U.S. warning that there could be an attack…. Why do you think he did that? What does it say about relations between Russia and the West and the United States? Obviously [relations] are in extremely bad shape. But in the past, they've listened to each other on these kinds of warnings sometimes.

I think the Americans clearly gave this warning in good faith. However, Putin has a tendency to mirror-image. I suspect that just as he probably wouldn't hesitate to issue a bogus warning for political, informational purposes, I think that when those 48 hours the warning pertained to -- which was March 8-9 -- had passed without incident, I think he got angry and thought this was, in fact, an attempt by the Americans to rattle Russians before the election.

Remember, one of the key Kremlin goals was precisely to ensure that there was a high turnout. If people are worried that some place where you cluster together might become a terrorist attack, then conceivably it might have affected turnout. So, I think Putin, imputing on Americans precisely the kind of goals that he might have had, decided to angrily strike back.

It's also worth noting that we are in a position where we really don't know much about the nature of this warning. American sources are saying, “Oh, it was all pretty specific.” Russian sources are saying it was all pretty generic. The Americans also been saying that they think that there's been a heightened risk from Islamic State-Khorasan since November -- well, that was months ago.

To say that there may be an attack, and it may be an attack on some large gathering, including concerts, and it may be at some point this month, is not really very actionable. Now, that said, at the moment, I have no idea. I have no idea whether in fact, it was, "We think it's going to be, you know, on a Friday at a major concert," which is actually quite usefully actionable, or whether it was very general.

The point is that regardless of what the professionals might have thought -- and there are some suggestions of a slightly increased police presence at some events and so forth this month -- it's clear Putin had just convinced himself that those perfidious Americans could not possibly be actually passing on a good-faith warning and that it was all just some attempt to undermine his own triumph [in the election].

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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