Skip to main content
Blog post

An Act of Terror Cannot Occur on Russian Soil

Ekaterina Kotrikadze
Crocus City hall attack in Moscow Russia
Moscow Oblast, Russia - March 22, 2024: Firefighters from the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations respond to a mass shooting at Crocus City Hall.

Almost a quarter century ago, the start of Vladimir Putin’s reign was marked by explosions in Moscow and the Chechen war. His fifth term opened with a horrific terrorist attack. According to officials, last Friday 139 people were killed by gunmen in Crocus City Hall, a 6,000-seat concert venue on the outskirts of Moscow.


In Moscow, the Kremlin is attempting to channel people’s grief and fear into anger at Ukraine, and to link Kyiv to the religious extremists who claimed responsibility for the attack, the Islamic State in Khorasan, a region encompassing parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. These attempts convince no one.


The Mirage of Protecting against Chaos and Terror


September 1999 went down in Russian history as a time of terrible explosions in residential buildings. The nation was shocked and devastated. Vladimir Putin, a forty-seven-year-old government functionary at that time, uttered an impressive phrase: “We will pursue them everywhere. Excuse me for saying so: we’ll catch them in the toilet. We’ll wipe them out in the outhouse.” 


Since day one, Putin has been portraying himself as an effective responder to violence, a leader able to deploy even more violence against the country’s enemies for the sake of peace and stability. Yet, in his twenty-fifth year as Russia’s ruler, Russia’s neighbors and Russia itself face death and destruction. 


On numerous occasions Putin has promised to prevent a repeat of the chaos of the 1990s. Or rather, he does not so much promise as try to psychologically bribe the population. According to the Kremlin’s political strategists, Russians should view Putin as akin to a czar, someone who can solve their problems through unilateral action. 


Under Putin, you do not have to be interested in politics to improve your situation. Everyday issues will somehow sort themselves out, and your salary and pension will arrive on time. However, in the last couple of years something has gone wrong. Russia has launched a full-scale invasion of a European country, and that war is now coming home to Russian regions. Shelling, explosions, and evacuations are taking place in the southern city of Belgorod, twenty-five miles north of the border with Ukraine, and Russia’s oil refineries are being attacked 500 miles inside the border. Terrorism has returned, and Putin is back to where he started.


Not Acknowledging Terrorism on Russia’s Soil


No state is immune to terrorism. The 2015 attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris organized by the Islamic State killed 130. It is extremely difficult to escape the attacks of fanatics precisely because they are brutal madmen who are not stopped even by their own fear. 


Putin never admits mistakes—his own or his security agencies’. Failures, such as inability to avoid massive casualties from previous acts of terror, are consistently erased from the history of Putin’s presidency. Normally, Putin does not attend memorial events dedicated to the victims of terrorist attacks. Grieving and remembering his brutally murdered fellow citizens is not Putin’s style. We already know that the Crocus City Hall arena will be rebuilt. No plan for a memorial site has been discussed so far.  


Back in December 2017, Putin announced the final victory over ISIS. He now needs to explain the revival of the group. No official explanation is likely because the Kremlin’s priority in situations like this is to point out the culprit. Many politicians do attempt to shift responsibility to others in critical situations, but Putin has built a career on playing victim in the face of real emergencies or consequences of his own blunders. 


The Crocus tragedy is a clear case of a security oversight, particularly in light of warnings of possible extremist attacks made public by the United States and other Western nations in early March. The United States also said it had communicated the threat to Russian authorities directly.


In 1999, after the bombings of apartment buildings, the Chechens were immediately blamed for everything. Now Ukraine is the most convenient enemy. The Kremlin has been busy inciting hatred toward this neighbor of Russia for many years now. And blaming Ukraine never goes without an accompanying reference to the “Kyiv regime’s Western puppet masters.” 



Conspiracy Theories and Violations of Suspects’ Rights


At this stage, any discussion of a Russian security forces’ false flag operation should be seen as peddling conspiracy theories. Otherwise, Moscow would have already launched some asymmetric response, such as a full-scale mobilization or major surges in activity on the battlefield in Ukraine. 


In the State Duma, the Russian parliament, there is a lot of talk of lifting the moratorium on the death penalty. Putin may use the terror attack as a pretext to approve this long-debated backsliding to Soviet-era practices. It is unclear, though, what other utility he could get out of it. 


Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that Kyiv not be excluded from the list of suspects sponsoring the Crocus arena attacks. The ministry’s spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, even called ISIS a “scarecrow.” “The American political engineers cornered themselves with their tales that the Crocus City Hall attack was carried out by the ISIS terror group,” she said. “Hence Washington’s daily bailing out of its wards in Kiev, and the attempt to cover itself and the Zelensky regime they created with the scarecrow of the outlawed ISIS.”


Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council, also did not wait for the results of the investigation. On his social media accounts he wrote about the need for “total executions of terrorists and repressions against their families.” He also pointed his finger at Ukraine.


FSB head Aleksandr Bortnikov did have something to say. Yes, Islamist radicals carried out the attack, he said on March 26, but Kyiv was involved. Secretary of the Security Council Patrushev, in response to the question “ISIS or Ukraine?,” confidently pointed to the latter. 


One of the main propaganda faces, Margarita Simonyan, explained that the criminals simply acted under a false flag. Her colleague, Vladimir Solovyov, directly accused the United States and Ukraine of involvement on state television. The Americans, he said, did everything possible to make this terrorist attack happen. 


But is there even the slightest evidence of Ukraine’s involvement? Only the supposed escape route the terrorists may have taken from Moscow to the Bryansk region, where the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian borders meet. That’s it so far. The rest is even bigger speculation. But the special forces tortured detainees suspected in this attack and posted videos of these acts online. 


According to the law, any testimony given under torture cannot be considered truthful, regardless of the severity of the crime. When asked about this, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “I leave this question unanswered.”


The Kremlin follows its old playbook. Putin’s political managers seek to offshore any terrorist attacks, to the point of the head of state not acknowledging the obvious and inventing “cues” that justify further repression against those whom the Kremlin labels as its enemies, not action against those who actually threaten Russian society. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Ekaterina Kotrikadze

Ekaterina Kotrikadze

News Director and Anchor, TV Rain (Dozhd TV)
Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more