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Russia’s Response to the Crocus City Hall Shootings: Tragedy Becomes Farce

28 Mar 2024
By Dr Matthew Sussex
Ministry of Emergency Situations firefighters attending the Cocus City Hall attack. Source: Press service of the Governor of the Moscow region /

Why does Russia insist on linking Ukraine to the atrocity? And what does it reveal about the Kremlin’s intentions?

The Kremlin’s response to the horrific attack on Russia’s Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk on Moscow’s outskirts suggests that the Russian political elite has become completely detached from reality. Alternatively, and probably more likely, it simply no longer cares how fanciful its claims have become. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s determination to somehow link the attack to the West and Ukraine underscores his regime’s leitmotif: that the innocent suffer consistently, and the guilty only infrequently, as a result of Putin’s pathologies.

Having grudgingly accepted that ISIS – which claimed responsibility for the attack, and provided gruesome but compelling evidence to support it – was to blame, Russia’s leaders have continued to insist that security services in the US and Ukraine had shadowy hands in its planning and execution. In doing so, they are violating a “golden rule” of intelligence analysis: to focus on the evidence that exists, rather than evidence you would like to exist.

The eagerness to blame the attack on Ukrainian state terrorism was apparent almost immediately after it was carried out. Pictures of the white van used by the attackers came with the confident assertion that it had Ukrainian number plates. In fact, they were Belarusian. Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev vowed revenge if Ukraine was responsible. The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets suggested Ukrainian military intelligence was involved. A report that the attackers were wearing false beards, with the insinuation that they were therefore Ukrainians, began to circulate. The newspaper Rosiskaya gazeta claimed that the weapons used by the suspects were similar to those employed by the Russia Volunteer Corps, an anti-Putin group aided by the Ukrainian government. Russian state media channel NTV aired a fake video purporting to show the Ukrainian National Security Chairman Oleksiy Danilov claiming responsibility. And the news agency RIA Novosti claimed the gunmen had contacts in the Ukrainian intelligence services, and were attempting to escape to Kyiv after two of the assailants were arrested near Bryansk, some 200 kilometres from the Ukrainian border (Bryansk is also virtually equidistant to the Belarusian border).

When Putin finally appeared on Saturday 23 March, in keeping with his habit of speaking last when major events occur, he was notably vague about who was to blame. But he clearly stated that a “window” had been prepared for the attackers to cross into Ukraine. However, once ISIS began providing actual proof of responsibility via its Amaq news agency, claims that it was primarily a Ukrainian operation became muddied. Put simply, it became impossible to argue with the photos ISIS displayed of the assailants preparing for the attack, and then actual body camera footage showing them carrying it out.

This prompted the Kremlin to shift the narrative to the line that Ukrainian Nazis and their US enablers were somehow in league with Islamic fundamentalists. FSB head Alexander Bortnikov claimed Ukraine had been training militants in the Middle East, arguing that UK and US intelligence services had “of course aided” with the plot, and that “the special services of Ukraine have a direct relation to this.”  When asked whether ISIS or Ukraine were responsible, Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council, replied “of course, Ukraine.”

These claims have avoided one obvious question: what Ukraine could possibly hope to gain from an alignment with ISIS, even if one were possible? They also ignore the fact that the US State Department had issued an advisory on 7 March about a potential attack on public places in Moscow, and had passed on specific intelligence to Russian authorities – including that concerts were likely targets – which Putin dismissed as an American attempt at “blackmail.” Finally, the Kremlin’s version sidestepped the well-known grievances ISIS has long enunciated against Russia, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the wars in Chechnya, and Moscow’s bloody support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, in addition to increasing chatter that ISIS was planning to strike Russian targets.

Beyond the bizarre conclusions that Russian politicians and state media have jumped to, Putin’s obsession with linking the attack to the confected existential threat of NATO, the US, and Ukraine is instructive on a number of counts.

First, it deflects attention away from the fact that the FSB and Interior Ministry were looking for enemies in the wrong direction. Indeed, the attack highlights the manifest failings of a monolithic domestic security apparatus that can respond swiftly to the slightest whiff of popular dissent, but is incapable of intercepting or responding to a brazen public assault, in which the attackers took a leisurely 90 minutes to gun down innocent civilians, and then simply walked away.

Second, the insistence that Washington and Kyiv were in some way responsible for the attack sheds some light on just how sensitive the Russian leadership is to public perceptions that it cannot safeguard its citizens. Part of Putin’s autocratic bargain with the Russian people – if it can be called that – is that, in return for protection by the state, the populace should stay out of politics. But in spite of being unable to stop Ukrainian drone activities against Russian infrastructure, and as the Crocus death toll continues to climb (137 at the time of writing), it seems that aligning an attack on civilians with official narratives about a perpetrator more powerful than ISIS alone is needed to generate a sense that there is a fundamental threat to Russian national security.

An additional implication of the Kremlin’s linkage of ISIS terror to a guiding Western hand is that it sets the scene for further crackdowns in Russia’s regions. It is often claimed that Putin fears so-called “colour” revolutions most of all: that the contagion of democratic uprisings in Kyiv and Tbilisi today might be easily transmitted to Moscow.

Yet as Russia’s two wars in Chechnya demonstrate, not to mention the fact that its security forces had been engaged in gun battles with alleged ISIS militants in Ingushetia a scant two weeks before the Crocus City Hall attack, the Kremlin is equally fearful of Russia’s great unravelling beginning on its periphery, and then spreading to the centre. Having previously demonised residents of the Caucasus following the 2002 Nord-Ost theatre and 2004 Beslan school sieges, Moscow has signalled a willingness to tap into deep-seated Russian suspicions of minority groups, with the attendant label that they are potentially agents of the morally decrepit West.

The Kremlin has also sought to encourage the public’s desire for revenge, actively celebrating the violence it has used against the suspected attackers. Of course, this raises significant questions about the confessions that might be extracted from them. When four suspects, all Tajik nationals, appeared in court on 25 March each of the accused bore signs of beatings and torture. Three were severely bruised, and a fourth was brought to court in a wheelchair with multiple cuts visible on his body. One had a heavily bandaged head, which correlated with Russian media reports that interrogators had cut off one of the suspect’s ears and forced it into his mouth.

Viewed in isolation, the failure of Russia’s security services to disrupt, respond to, and appropriately manage the investigation into the Crocus City Hall attack should be damning enough.

Yet it is more than that. The fact that Putin is prepared to weaponise blame for the atrocity at Crocus City Hall to support his own bad judgment in launching an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is a new low in his cynical attempts to manipulate Russian opinion, not to mention an insult to the victims. To Russia watchers, though, this is a common theme. Put simply, who Moscow decides to blame – and punish – is ultimately more important than who was actually responsible.

Dr Matthew Sussex is Associate Professor (Adjunct) at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University; Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU; and Visiting Fellow at the Centre for European Studies, ANU.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.