What does the attack at Crocus City Hall mean for Putin?

The attack of the “Islamic State” in Russia is not convenient for the Kremlin these days. Therefore, Putin will try to redirect Russians’ emotions and attention elsewhere.

Moskwa, pod Moskwą, atak terrorystyczny, zamach, kto dokonał, Władimir Putin, Rosja, Ukraina, propaganda, FSB, Crocus City Hall
The effects of the terrorist attack on Crocus City Hall near Moscow.
Photo: mosreg.ru

The essence and goal of every terrorist attack are to cause torment and panic. To achieve political goals, manipulating people by evoking extreme emotions can be a powerful strategy. However, it is essential to manage these emotions skillfully. It involves controlling the feelings of the targeted society and other communities affected by the attack. The attackers from Crocus City Hall failed to navigate the feelings caused by their invasion, which resulted in a violent outcome. The political motive behind their barbaric raid is also unknown.

It should be noted that the recent attack near Moscow cannot be explained by any statement made by the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan Province in Afghanistan claiming responsibility for it. The circumstances surrounding the tragic event, including the suspicious background, sequence of occurrences, and identification of all participants, remain in mystery and are difficult to explain now. The Kremlin took control of moderating emotions following the attack, both in Russia and abroad, making it a hybrid attack. It was carried out by Muslim extremists from the Islamic State but used by Russian propaganda for Putin’s political purposes.

Alleged Ukrainian trace

In the initial hours of the most deadly terror attack in the Moscow region in decades at Crocus City Hall, the media coverage was dominated by a hypothesis suggesting that the attack was carried out either by Kyiv or on their behalf. This hypothesis was supported by photos on the Internet showing a van with Ukrainian plates parked near a shopping center. Kremlin officials, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and Dmitry Medvedev, were quick to make statements supporting this theory. Medvedev, in particular, is known for ferocity in his views.

According to the prevailing hypothesis in the West, the attack might have been carried out by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSS) in an attempt to blame Kyiv. Further reports have confirmed the theories, including the arrest of attackers in the Bryansk region who were allegedly heading towards Ukraine. Additionally, Vladimir Putin himself, in his speech almost 24 hours after the attack, openly said that Ukraine intended to open a window of opportunities on the border through which the terrorists could escape.

Putin did not provide an explanation for how the attackers planned to cross the frontline zone on the Russian side, which is heavily monitored and patrolled by the army. Putin and the media propaganda did not clarify why the fleeing terrorists chose such a risky method and route, covering nearly 400 km from the vicinity of Moscow. They traveled on roads patrolled by police with cameras and posts at district borders, which could have been closed immediately. Consequently, there are many questions about the logic of the perpetrators’ activities.

However, the Kremlin did not intend to answer these questions. It was all about tying Ukraine and the West to the terrorist attack. It’s not convenient for Putin to resume the fight against Islamist terrorism. It would be like creating a second internal conflict. In Russia, opening a front requires a well-planned, long-term campaign to prepare society. The campaign should plant hatred towards the enemy. It is exactly what happened with the Chechens and Ukraine. Currently, this is also the case with the West.

During the late 1990s and early 21st century, Russian propaganda campaigns focused on radical Islam. This propaganda was directed towards the Chechens and Islamic radicals. The main aim was to justify the Second War in Chechnya. The propaganda also helped to manage the emotions of the Russians. The attacks on residential buildings in Moscow, Volgodonsk, Buynaksk, the Moscow metro, Beslan, Dubrovka, and many others were used to support this narrative.

Not only that, but Putin also skillfully joined the Western coalition in the fight against terrorism after the tragic and shocking events of September 11, 2001. He used the fear of radical Islam and terrorism to his advantage again in 2015 when he decided to save the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. The Russian contingent sent to Syria fought against the so-called Islamic State, as well as all other groups opposing and threatening Assad.

The war in Syria failed to elicit a significant emotional response from the public due to its distance and involvement of only a small number of troops and groups of mercenaries. Ordinary Russians were not particularly affected by the Syrian conflict, but the situation with Ukraine is an entirely different story.

The Kremlin’s propaganda machine has been actively preparing for the ongoing conflict for several years, fueling hatred and resentment towards the Ukrainians among the Russians. While the West has also been considered an adversary, it was during the last campaign leading up to Putin’s election that the emphasis on anti-Western themes and the narrative that Russia is not only fighting against Ukraine but also NATO became increasingly crucial.

And suddenly, there is a bloody attack in Krasnogorsk. It is entirely incompatible with the storyline that Russia is fighting Ukrainian Nazism and Western imperialism, and Russophobia. There were deliberate efforts to incorporate Ukrainian traces into the attack’s origin. However, Russian propaganda struggles to clarify the roots of the Islamic State attack that happened near Moscow recently. To do that, they would have to justify the Kremlin’s support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and explain why they fight against Islamic groups from Syria to Sub-Saharan Africa. Such explanations may be misinterpreted and create additional issues, particularly in the Muslim-dominated North Caucasus and elsewhere.

In Russia, Muslims make up around 10 percent of the population. As per the 2021 census, there were approximately 350,000 Tajiks alone (the nationality of those suspected of attacking Crocus City Hall). However, there are even more of them now, as the census was conducted during the pandemic when many immigrants had left. The Russian economy faces a significant labor shortage and a dire need for Central Asian immigrants. It has increased the risk of hatred against Muslims, creating an environment of ethnic tension and Russian chauvinism toward Muslim immigrants that is unfavorable to the Kremlin.

At the same time, anti-immigrant sentiments or emotions in Muslim regions cannot harm Putin’s power, even if there are more terrorist attacks. The Kremlin regime is resilient to such turmoils, as it has shown during a more challenging time when it was effectively at war with radical Islam. However, it struggles to construct a propaganda narrative that blames the Ukrainians today.

Police para-state

Russia, under Putin, has a strong security comprising various pillars such as the FSB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the police, the Russian National Guard Rosgvardiya, the Investigative Committee, and other services. These services include intelligence, internet supervision, prison system supervision, and more. Almost every service has an extensive network of agents and informants. According to various data, security companies employ 700,000 up to even a million people, including former or current officers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Russian National Guard, and other services. The services have a law at their disposal that gives them a decisive advantage over citizens, yet they often operate outside this law. In big cities, an electronic surveillance system is in place, including databases that can be accessed for various purposes.

Nevertheless, a group of Tajik immigrants, who are not yet known to have any particular experience with weapons, military tactics, or training in sabotage, carried out the bloodiest attack in Russia in 20 years. It sounds absurd, but not wholly unbelievable. In similar situations, attackers motivated by fanaticism managed to inflict bloody blows on countries that functioned much more efficiently than Russia, like France, the USA, Great Britain, and Israel.

Putin’s power is founded on using violence to protect Russians’ security. However, recent developments suggest that this foundation may be weakening. Some of the Russians are beginning to question whether their police state is effective or just overly strict. As a result, cracks are starting to appear on the Kremlin’s regime walls.

The FSS people reacted in their typical way: torturing the captured attackers and making an apparent show in front of the cameras. The explosion of violence is intended to cover up their inability to prevent the attacks. That is why Putin talks about the window of opportunities opened by the Ukrainians, an alleged escape route for terrorists. Because it may be hard for the Russians to understand that these Tajiks, looking miserable after torture, could fool Putin’s powerful security system on their own. Putin tells the Russians a similar story about the war with Ukraine. When, after two years of war, there were no results of the quick conquest of Kyiv as announced at the beginning, the Kremlin started to create a narrative that it was not fighting against Ukraine but against the entire NATO.

The lack of success against Ukraine has been a source of humiliation for the Kremlin, which has long ridiculed its neighbor as a failed state in Russian propaganda. Following the Kremlin’s strategy of manipulating public opinion, Moscow may seek to blame Ukraine for any future acts of aggression, even if the direct perpetrators are punished. Putin does not necessarily require a pretext for escalating the conflict in Ukraine, as the war continues with planned offenses – likely aimed at the Sumy and Kharkiv direction – and may proceed for tactical reasons anyway. However, the narrative of a Ukrainian-backed attack on Crocus City Hall will undoubtedly help Putin maintain a high level of public support for the war in Ukraine. It will likely give him more confidence to take further escalations and confront the Western world.

Michał Kacewicz/belsat.eu

Translated by PEV