The Russian Concert Hall attack: just another opportunity to embolden Putin?

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On the 22nd of March four gunmen launched an attack at a music venue in Moscow. The attackers shot at, stabbed, and detonated bombs on crowds gathered at the Crocus City Hall for a concert. 145 people were killed and over 550 more were injured. Specialised police were delayed by Moscow rush-hour traffic; they arrived over an hour after the attack began by which time the suspects had fled.

Later that evening the four suspects were stopped in a car around 200 miles from Moscow. They were found to be Muslim citizens of Tajikistan. Videos emerged of the suspects, handcuffed, being beaten, and tortured by what appears to be agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service. The suspects appeared in court, behind bulletproof glass, bruised and bloodied. Three of the four pled guilty in the initial hearing while the fourth appeared to be unresponsive. In the following weeks many more have been arrested, accused of conspiring with the suspects and financing the attack.

The Islamic State later released statements on Telegram claiming responsibility for the attack. Specifically, it is believed to the be the Khorasan Province of ISIS, known as ISISK. This group have been responsible for many attacks, mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the 2021 Kabul airport bombing.

Within hours of the attack occuring there came a barrage of misinformation

Within hours of the attack occuring there came a barrage of misinformation, much of which came from the Russian state itself. As the suspects were arrested some 90 miles from the border with Ukraine, President Putin immediately attempted to link the suspects to Kyiv, claiming they were attempting to flee there. In a nationwide address the following day Mr Putin maintained that the attackers had links to Ukraine despite the fact that ISISK had already claimed responsibility. Maria Zakharova, the director of the press department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs further accused the United States of covering up for Kyiv as the Americans maintained that ISIS acted alone in the attack.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky denied any Ukrainian involvement in the attacks in Moscow. He described Mr Putin as “scum” for suggesting Ukraine were responsible and pointed the finger at Mr Putin for sending “hundreds of thousands of terrorists” to Ukraine since 2022 as part of Russia’s invasion. Mr Zelensky also suggested that the Russian state itself were at least partly responsible for the attack.

For weeks prior to the attack Russia received warnings from the US, Canada, and the UK. On March 7th, the US released a warning to its citizens in Russia of an impending attack. They later warned Russia that the Crocus City Hall may be specifically targeted. Three days before the attack Mr Putin dismissed these warnings as “provocative statements” aimed to destabilise and undermine Russian society and state. Mr Putin side-lined these cautions from the West despite the fact that Russia thwarted a planned attack on a Moscow synagogue only hours after the US embassy had warned the Kremlin of such an attack. Some have argued this is evidence of the dangerous distrust between Russia and the West. Others have suggested that blaming Ukraine is part of a strategy to deflect from this apparent blunder from the Kremlin.

Mr Putin has used to attack to further clamp down on dissent

Mr Putin has used to attack to further clamp down on dissent. He has equated the terrorists to his opposition movement formerly lead by Alexei Navalny, who died as a political prisoner in February 2024, as well as to the “LGBT movement”. Joshua Yaffa, writing for the New Yorker, has suggested that looking to the 2004 Beslan attack is instructive in understanding what Mr Putin is likely to do next. Rather than reforming Russia’s security agencies, Mr Putin utilised that attack to clamp down on dissent and “roll back nascent democratic reforms”. It is likely that Mr Putin will utilise the Crocus City Hall attack to clamp down on anyone he sees as an enemy; whether that be ISISK, Ukraine, domestic opposition movements, or the West in general. A scale up of the invasion, riding off nationalist sentiment and paranoia, seems probable. Also likely is the tightening of control on freedom of speech and protest, especially those related to Mr Navalny’s opposition movement who Mr Putin has put on the same list of terrorist and extremist organisations as ISISK.

While in the West the attacks seem to indicate Mr Putin’s dangerous lack of control, in Russia the massacre has seemingly emboldened the Russian president. The majority of Russians believe that Ukraine are to blame for the attack and the Russian military have claimed that 16,000 people have enlisted in the army to “avenge” those killed in Moscow. While these figures are hard to disentangle from Russia’s own suppression of dissent, it certainty indicates that President Putin is utilising the attack to present a narrative of Russian persecution by the West and its allies. A narrative which lends further credence to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, their restriction of civil liberties, and their distrust of the West.

Image: Kremlin via Wikimedia Commons


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