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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


Last month's terrorist attack at the Crocus City concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow shocked Russians and non–Russians alike. Four gunmen took the lives of more than 140 concert–goers in the deadliest terrorist incident in Russia since the Beslan school siege in 2004 (which left more than 300 dead, more than half of whom were children).

ISIS, sharing video footage from the attack, claimed responsibility. Its affiliates have mounted similar attacks in the past, including the Bataclan theatre attacks in Paris, but Putin tried to make use of the situation to vilify other actors. He, with weary predictability, tried to pin blame on Ukraine and the west. He acknowledged that the perpetrators were 'radical Islamists', but instead of linking them to ISIS, he suggested that the attack was 'ordered' by – in his words – 'those who have been fighting against our country since 2014 using the neo–Nazi Kyiv regime as a pawn.' The line has been repeated by Russian officials several times over the past week and a half.

Putin had begun to blame Ukraine in his initial address to Russian citizens following the attacks. He said that the terrorists fled from the concert hall in the direction of Ukraine where 'a window was prepared for them on the Ukrainian side to cross the state border.' Putin said that the terrorists had accomplices in Ukraine during both the preparation and the escape. In this post, I want to explain the problems with Putin's version and what it tells us about modern Russia.

Putin's folly

In trying to implicate western states, Putin claimed that Muslims would not commit an atrocity during the sacred month of Ramadan (although since he admitted that they had, he seemed to refute his own claim). Putin said the United States was engaged in an effort to convince its allies of ISIS's culpability as a way of diverting attention from its own role. Muslims would not attack Russia, Putin intimated, because Russia favoured 'a fair resolution of the escalated crisis in the Middle East.'

In fact, we can dismiss Putin's version, especially the line about Ukrainian accomplices, fairly confidently. In the first place, we just need to acknowledge that Russia has been the victim of terrorist acts repeatedly in the past and that its actions during recent years have strengthened anti–Russia sentiment among radicalised Muslim populations.

Putin's rise to power was tied up with the terrorist threat to Russia. Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin as prime minister in August 1999. The new prime minister's first test came as Chechen separatists invaded Dagestan, striving to carve out a new trans–Caucasian republic from southern Russia. Many Russian officials felt they had unfinished business from the first Chechen war – which had proved a humiliation for the Kremlin – and wanted a renewed military campaign against the separatists.

Then, in September, a series of apartment bombings in Russia killed more than 300 people. The Russian state attributed the attacks to Chechen terrorists, although many suspect FSB provocateurs carried out the bombings. Either way, support for a war against the Chechen separatists soared – as did Putin's popularity. Putin saw it as his 'historical destiny' to sort out the Chechen problem: 'If we don't put an end to this, Russia will cease to exist,' he claimed in language strikingly similar to that he uses about Ukraine today (cited in Truscott 2005). He later promised 'to wipe [the Chechens] out in the shithouse' (mochit' v sortire).

Regardless of who stood behind the 1999 bombings, what is clear is that Russia's military moved on Chechnya very quickly after the bombings, using them as part of the justification for the war. The Russian military razed the city of Grozny to the ground. Putin, little known to the public when Yeltsin made him prime minister, was consequently associated from the beginning with a hard line against terrorism.

Fuel to the fire

In terms of fuelling anti–Russia sentiment, one should also keep in mind Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war from 2015 when its support for Bashar al–Assad included bombing ISIS targets as well as the Syrian opposition. One can go back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and trace a history of Islamist animosity towards Moscow. Radicalised Muslims hold plenty of grievances against the Russian state.

That is why Islamist terrorist incidents have peppered the Putin era. Most notorious was the 2002 Dubrovka theatre siege. That attack had similarities with the recent one. Like the Crocus City Hall attack, the terrorists deliberately picked a venue in Moscow, where they could strike at the heart of Russian power, but away from areas with a heavy police or security presence. Forty armed Chechens, including female suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies, sprayed bullets as they entered the venue. Putin's tough line and claims that Russia was wiping out Chechen separatists suddenly rang hollow. The terrorists took 900 hostages. The notoriety came from the Russian state's response. Its special services raided the theatre, killing all forty terrorists, but their use of a gas – possibly fentanyl – to debilitate the terrorists backfired. Of the 132 hostages who died, most died from the gas released by special forces during the raid rather than terrorist gunfire.

Chechnya was brought to heel and since 2007 has been run by Ramzan Kadyrov as a satrapy; in return for fealty to the Kremlin, Kadyrov gets away with murder. But there have been other terrorist attacks in Russia: the Beslan school siege mentioned in the introduction, in which the Russian response was to storm the school, seen as heavy–handed and responsible for a heightened death toll; plane bombings in 2004 which killed 90; and a train bombing in 2009 which killed 28.

Putin blames past terrorist incidents on western states in a roundabout way. The Dubrovka theatre attack was, according to Putin, 'planned abroad' (Truscott 2005, p.322). The Chechen terrorists who carried out the school siege were, according to Putin, able to succeed because of what he views as western states' implicit support for Russia's disintegration (O Tuathail 2009). The United States and United Kingdom granted asylum to key Chechen activists, and would not extradite them, which Putin equated to support for terrorism. It requires an inflated sense of self–importance and paranoia to reach that viewpoint, yet Putin gets there over and over.

The Putin–Lukashenka double act

A reason to doubt the Kremlin's implication of Ukraine in the attacks came from its ally Belarus. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, never one to miss an opportunity to showcase his own regime's security, contradicted Putin. According to Lukashenka, the terrorists were headed towards the Russia–Belarus border and only rerouted towards Ukraine because the Belarusian state set up border checkpoints and increased its security along the border. So much for the Ukrainian accomplices 'opening a window.' Lukashenka said that he and Putin had discussed the matter and agreed that Belarus would close the border to prevent the terrorists escaping from Russia.

Despite their alliance, the two leaders have always had a prickly relationship. Lukashenka often contradicts, or otherwise deviates from, Putin's line. One only need think back to his claims about his role in settling the mutiny led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, or how he and Putin were out of step when talking in public about the transfer of nuclear weapons to Belarus. In May last year, Lukashenka suggested that the weapons were already being transferred to Belarus, only for Putin to say that no Belarusian storage facilities would be ready before July. In June, however, Putin caught up with Lukashenka's rhetoric and claimed that the weapons had been transferred. Thus, it took some contradictory statements before the two leaders were reading from the same script. The careful observer could not be sure whether the weapons had been moved or it was all bluff and bluster.

Lukashenka's rhetoric is always about personal prestige rather than the truth; he constantly looks for ways to burnish his own credentials with audiences, whether that's a domestic audience or a Russian one. So, as always, take anything from Lukashenka with a scoop of salt. His intervention tells us more about him than anything else, but nonetheless undermines Putin's version of events and implication of Ukraine. Russia's response, meanwhile, tells us more about Russia today than it does the attacks themselves.

The brutalisation of Russia

A real worry is how brutally the suspects have been treated – and how happy the Russian state is for everyone to know it. Russia is not concealing the torture of the suspects. The four Tajik men who appeared in court accused of carrying out the attack had clearly been beaten. They had swollen faces, bruised eyes and one had a bandage over his right ear. A video online (which I have not seen) apparently shows the captors cutting off the suspect's ear and trying to make him eat it. One suspect appeared to be unconscious as he was wheeled into the court. Some versions of how Alexey Navalny died betray a similar level of brutality. There is little effort to conceal the cruelty that these individuals have been subjected to.

The writer Sergei Medvedev, in his polemical book A War Made in Russia, describes Russia in this way. His book is a zippy read and best viewed as an exercise in rhetoric rather than scholarship. (I am not saying that his arguments are wrong, only that they are not easily proven: a sympathetic reader will be carried along, a less sympathetic one will think Medvedev cherry picks evidence in support of his claims.) For him, 'the practice of violence... runs through the whole of Russian society, from the family and school to state institutions' (Medvedev 2023, p.16). He sees brutality as normalised and legitimated in Russian society. And Chechnya and also Belarus, for Medvedev, exist 'outside the legal order and are run with the aid of terror ... [as] part of the Russian political terror machine' (p.67).

This is Putin's Russia. It was there in the beginning in so far as the Chechen campaign beginning in 1999 was accompanied by reports of rape, torture and murder. It predates the Putin era, in fact, and Putin can be seen as a response to the 'lawlessness' of Russia in the 1990s. But the situation has only deteriorated since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, accompanied by reports of war crimes and barbarity. And as Russia slides deeper into totalitarianism, the brutality will only intensify.

You can support this blog by buying a copy of my book Belarus in Crisis: From Domestic Unrest to the Russia–Ukraine War. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

Image credit: Engin Akyurt, downloaded from Cropped and tinted by me.

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