The Moscow attack has opened a new front in the Russia-West information war

A battle of narratives is well under way, complicating an already volatile geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe

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The attack on the Crocus City concert venue in the outskirts of Moscow came as a horrific reminder to Russians of their country’s vulnerability to acts of terrorism.

In the early 2000s, fighters for the independence of Chechnya staged a series of atrocities. These included the 2004 Beslan school siege in which more than 300 died, many of them children, and the 2002 attack on the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow, which claimed 132 lives and bears some similarities to the indiscriminate shootings that killed more than 130 mostly young Russians last week.

While western observers mostly drew parallels with the Bataclan theatre massacre in Paris in 2015, it is the Chechen attacks that took place in Vladimir Putin’s first term as President that most Russians will have looked back to when the news broke of the mass shootings at Crocus City. Now, however, Chechnya enjoys an uneasy peace and there was no speculation about any Chechen involvement.

Instead, the first claim of responsibility came from ISIS, and subsequent claims – including video footage of the killings – came from a particular affiliate of ISIS-K, which has its roots in Afghanistan, with offshoots in parts of Central Asia and southern Russia.

The day after the attack, Russian authorities captured four men, reported to be citizens of Tajikistan, who were apparently trying to flee Russia by road to neighbouring Ukraine or Belarus. They appeared in court the following day. All appeared to have been severely beaten, although it is not clear whether this took place during their capture, as some say, or while under interrogation, as others suggest, accusing the authorities of torture.

Another seven people were picked up about the same time in Russia, with as many as 40 people subsequently detained in Turkey.

After the first ISIS claim, the first responses came not from the Kremlin, but from the US and from Ukraine

If the authorities have arrested the right people – and independent observers and media analysts have established that the individuals in the video footage of the attack match those who appeared in the Moscow court – then Russia may have managed to turn a failure of intelligence and security into a partial success. This was surely a reason why the authorities had the court proceedings televised.

All that said, questions remain both about the attack and its aftermath, to the point where a catastrophic event for Russia is rapidly opening a new front in its information war with the West that has raged since the start of the Ukraine conflict in 2022.

The most obvious question is why ISIS-K would select a “soft” target in Moscow, and why now.

Some have suggested Russia’s acceptance of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, or its military role in Syria (although this has been scaled back, now that the Kremlin’s focus is on Ukraine), or even the Soviet-era military presence in Afghanistan. It is hard to identify anything really recent, however, as Russia has voted consistently with supporters of an immediate ceasefire in UN votes on Israel and Gaza.

Some have also noted that ISIS fighters more often choose martyrdom over capture. They would usually not – as at least one of the suspects is said to have admitted – have received payment. The involvement of Tajik citizens is one of the more plausible elements. Russia is a favoured destination for Tajik migrant workers, who move relatively easily around the former Soviet countries, including Ukraine.

The responses to the attack also pose questions. After the first ISIS claim, the first responses came not from the Kremlin, but from the US, which said that the ISIS claim was “credible”, and from Ukraine, which fiercely denied any involvement.

Mr Putin, meanwhile, came in for criticism for saying nothing until almost 24 hours after the event. By this time, he was able to announce the capture of four suspects and hinted – but only hinted – at a Ukrainian connection, saying that the four were heading to Ukraine and had a “window” to cross the border. Mr Putin refrained, however, from directly blaming Kyiv or using the sort of strong language he has used about attacks on Russia in the past.

It was almost as though he was undecided exactly what angle to take. In a second broadcast, Mr Putin broadly accepted that ISIS had carried out the attack, but he wondered who the paymasters were, pointing the finger at the US and Ukraine.

A further question concerns a supposed warning.

It is known that the US and UK warned their citizens in Russia of a possible attack and to stay away from mass gatherings. But this came on March 7, the week before Russia’s presidential election; it applied only to the next 48 hours, and it was treated by Russia as a US ploy to unnerve voters. It is not known whether there was another warning and whether either was communicated directly to the Russian authorities.

The different responses suggest two priorities for the US and its allies – to deflect suspicion from Ukraine and to present Mr Putin as weak and little concerned about the safety of Russians. For Mr Putin, the priority has been to appear tough in defending Russia’s security and punishing terrorism, and – but only secondarily – to discredit Ukraine.

The harshest condemnation of Ukraine was left to Russia’s chief hawk, Dmitry Medvedev, who heads the country’s Security Council, and sections of the Russian media. This narrative has now emerged in a more developed form – in a big feature in the popular weekly Argumenty i fakty (Arguments and Facts), which levels the blame at the US and the UK, with their “puppet” Ukraine.

In the meantime, one of the few pieces of evidence for Ukrainian involvement seemed to be shattered when Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko – no less – said that the suspects had first tried to escape to Belarus and headed for Ukraine only after being refused.

How this plays out from now on depends on whether Russians rally around Mr Putin as a strong man and the guardian of their national security, or they condemn him for the fact that the atrocity happened at all. It also depends on which narrative prevails: the West’s focus on ISIS, or Russia’s claim that the attackers had western paymasters. Further, there is also a risk that Russians turn against their Tajik and other Muslim minorities, which could trigger new unrest in the country’s southern regions.

At very least, the Crocus City Hall attack has added a new element into an already volatile situation, with potential destabilising effects much further afield.

Published: March 28, 2024, 3:00 PM