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Why Putin Is Trying To Pin The Concert Hall Attack On Kyiv And The West

In Putin’s narrative, there’s little room for a deadly attack by Islamic extremists.
In Putin’s narrative, there’s little room for a deadly attack by Islamic extremists.

In his first remarks following the assault on a concert hall outside Moscow on March 22, more than 18 hours after gunmen killed at least 139 people in the deadliest terror attack in Russia in 20 years, President Vladimir Putin made no mention of the extremist group Islamic State, which had already claimed responsibility.

He did mention Ukraine, however, stating that Kyiv had provided a “window” on the border between the two countries to enable the attackers to try to escape. He did not provide evidence.

In subsequent comments late on March 25, Putin said that “radical Islamists” had carried out the attack, for which the United States has said Islamic State-Khorasan, an affiliate of the extremist group Islamic State (IS), bore sole responsibility. But he also doubled down on intimations that Ukraine played a role -- and also pointed a finger at the United States and the West.

Among other wording clearly meant to convey to Russians that Ukraine and the West were behind the attack, Putin said that the United States was “using every channel to try to convince its satellites and other countries…that there is supposedly no indication of involvement by Kyiv.” And he suggested that the attack was part of what he described as efforts by Ukraine, “carrying out the orders of its Western handlers,” to “sow panic” in Russia as Moscow’s forces make gains in the invasion of its neighbor.

Meanwhile, state-run media in Russia have avidly played up the idea that Ukraine and the West were behind the attack, as have senior officials and lawmakers. In a brief exchange posted on Telegram, a reporter asked Security Council Secretary and close Putin ally Nikolai Patrushev, “[IS] or Ukraine?” and Patrushev replied, “Of course, Ukraine.”

Placing blame abroad for things that happen in Russia -- from terror attacks to peaceful opposition protests -- is nothing new for Putin. He has been doing it since at least 2004, after the hostage crisis that left more than 330 people dead at a school in the southern town of Beslan, insinuating that Washington and the West were supporting Islamic militants in the North Caucasus in an effort to weaken Russia.

But the stakes this time may be particularly high: Putin has just secured a new six-year term in an election marred by evidence of wide-scale fraud, and his decision to launch an all-out invasion of Ukraine has led to a long, grueling war and hundreds of thousands of Russian casualties instead of the speedy subjugation of Kyiv that he apparently expected.

Here are some of the reasons Putin is pointing the finger at Kyiv and the West in the Crocus City Hall attack.

The Narrative

Since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, Putin has tried to turn Russia into a country where a war footing is a matter of course, a fact of life, and to use it to tighten his grip on the country. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, recently called for “internal mobilization,” suggesting Russians should not just back the war outwardly but believe in it as something like a matter of faith -- a striking suggestion given that, for most Russians, support for the war is passive and without personal enthusiasm.

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Increasingly, Putin has sought to convince citizens that the country is fighting not a war of aggression against Ukraine but rather an existentially crucial defensive war in which Ukraine is just a tool in the hands of Washington and the West, which are bent on dominating or destroying Russia. This view is enforced through laws that the state has been using to silence Russians who criticize or question the war on Ukraine.

In that narrative, there’s little room for a deadly attack by Islamic extremists. The Crocus City Hall attack could suggest that Putin has taken his eye off threats that are more imminent, or more real, than those he says are posed by the West.

The 'Failure'

Against that backdrop, suggesting the attack was ultimately the work of the West may be a bid to soften the blow, symbolic as it may be, from what Alexander Vershbow, a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank and a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said was a “serious intelligence failure.”

Missing such a threat would be particularly hard to explain in light of the fact that earlier in March, the United States had warned Russia of intelligence indicating extremists had “imminent plans” for an attack -- and the fact that Putin, three days before it happened, had publicly dismissed the warning as a “provocative” effort “to intimidate and destabilize our society.”

So one motive for suggesting that the United States may have had a role in the attack could have been to fit the U.S. warning -- which came ahead of the March 15-17 presidential election -- into the broader narrative of a war in which Russia’s adversaries would stop at nothing to get the upper hand.

Ukraine has denied any role in the attack, and U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said on March 24 that there was “no Ukrainian involvement whatsoever."

The Dilemma

While there’s no visible evidence of a connection with Ukraine, there is an apparent link with Central Asia: Russian authorities have detained at least 11 people and ordered eight of them held in pretrial detention, including four citizens of Tajikistan who are accused of carrying out the shooting.

Because Russia relies substantially on labor migrants from Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries, the identity of the alleged suspects poses “a serious policy dilemma” for Putin, said Mark Galeotti, an analyst of Russian politics and security issues.

“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?

“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,” he said. “At the moment, Russia cannot afford to alienate and drive out these Central Asian workers -- it needs them…. 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.”

The attack has worsened ethnic tensions, and the public display of graphic footage appearing to show Russian security officers abusing the detainees could be designed to slake any thirst for revenge. But Putin may be hoping to avoid broad steps such as placing heavier restrictions on entry to Russia for citizens of Tajikistan and its neighbors, Galeotti said, because it would “damage the Russian economy and damage Russia’s standing with its crucial Central Asian allies.”

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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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