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After Moscow attack, could Putin's image suffer in Russia?

Aparna Ramamurthy in Riga, Latvia
March 26, 2024

In the wake of the deadly attack in Moscow, questions are arising over Russia's security, especially after President Vladimir Putin shrugged off Western warnings. Will this affect his public image?

People lay flowers at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack
Russia is grappling with the aftermath of Friday's devastating attack in MoscowImage: Dmitry Feoktistov/picture alliance/dpa/TASS

"Putin resign!"

This chant rang out in 2018 after a fire broke out at a crowded mall in Siberia, just a week after the last Russian presidential election, which gave Vladimir Putin a second consecutive term as president — and his fourth overall. 

But after the deadly attack at the Crocus City Hall concert venue in Moscow on Friday, it's instead the slogan "We mourn" that has blanketed the city as Russia grieves the loss of at least 139 lives.

Just five days after the 2024 presidential election, in which Putin extended his term by another six years, gunmen dressed in camouflage gear stormed the hall, shooting people at close range and hurling incendiary bombs. 

People bring flowers to a makeshift memorial outside the Crocus City Hall
March 24 was declared a day of national mourningImage: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

The so-called Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) has claimed responsibility for the attack, with Washington saying there is no reason to doubt the claim by the extremist group, an Afghanistan branch of the transnational "Islamic State" (IS) militant group. 

But will any blame be assigned to Putin for what is being widely seen as a serious blunder by Russian intelligence?

Kremlin blames Kyiv to 'justify the Ukraine war'

At least seven suspects have been charged with committing terror-related offenses. According to Russia's state news agency TASS, four of the men were identified as citizens of Tajikistan, where IS recruitment is known to be prevalent. 

Despite the strong evidence supporting IS' claim that it carried out the attack, Russian television channels and top officials have made unverified allegations suggesting Ukraine's involvement. Putin himself hinted at the same during his national address on Saturday.

Two days after the attack, Putin did concede that it was committed by Islamist terrorists. But at the same time, he reiterated his accusations against Ukraine in what has widely been seen as an attempt to partly divert attention from his government's security failings and to justify the invasion of the neighboring country.

Extremism expert: Russian narrative clashing with reality

Analysts have suggested that Russian officials and pro-Kremlin hawks are blaming Kyiv for the attack simply to defend their actions. 

"Russia wants to use anything to justify the Ukraine war, and now they are trying to use this terrorist attack to justify it," Vera Mironova, a Russian-American scholar and writer, told DW. 

She thinks this could be problematic for Ukraine, as Moscow might intensify its attacks. 

Even though Kyiv has denied any involvement, and there is no evidence that Ukraine played any part in the concert hall attack, Mironova said Russians may come to believe the Kremlin's narrative owing to its persuasive propaganda.

Putin's rule beset by security challenges 

However, after 24 years of Putin's rule and two years into the war with Ukraine, the attack may end up having political consequences. Security failures like Friday's attack undermine the president's image as the guarantor of a powerful, unified state that can protect Russians.

Russian Rosguardia (National Guard) servicemen walk toward the Crocus City Hall
Despite its power, Russia's security apparatus failed to stop the deadly attack on March 22Image: Sergei Vedyashkin/AP Photo/picture alliance

Putin's ascent to power began with a harsh counterinsurgency operation in Chechnya. In September 1999, four explosions hit apartment blocks in Moscow. The Kremlin blamed Chechen militants, despite a lack of evidence. Several journalists and Russia analysts believe the explosions may have, in fact, been orchestrated by Russian intelligence services.

However, on the basis of the Kremlin's accusations, Putin, who was prime minister at the time, launched a bombing campaign against Chechnya. That offensive gave Putin a boost of popularity ahead of his first presidential victory.

Since then, Russia has suffered several other deadly attacks, such as the 2002 siege at a Moscow theater, the 2004 hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, and other attacks targeting transportation networks. These have been linked to Chechen separatists, and later to al-Qaeda and the IS group.

As Russia suppressed Chechen insurgents, however, attacks also decreased. The last major attack in Russia took place in 2011, with Putin widely credited for bringing stability to the country.

Putin ignored US warnings about attack

But Friday's attack, which can be seen as an abject failure of Russian intelligence, has brought back a feeling of vulnerability. And Putin himself has played a relatively prominent role in that failure.

The US Embassy in Russia issued a warning on March 7 that "extremists" were planning an imminent attack in Moscow, and warned people to avoid concerts and crowds.

But at a Federal Service Security Board meeting on March 19 — just three days before the Crocus City Hall attack — Putin dismissed the warnings as "provocative statements by a number of official Western structures regarding potential terrorist attacks in Russia," according to a Kremlin transcript.

In a familiar tactic of blaming the West for almost all the ills that beset his country, Putin said the actions "resemble outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society."

Immediately after the attack, the US National Security Council confirmed it had shared intelligence with Russia about the imminent attack, "in accordance with its longstanding 'duty to warn' policy."

'Russian security services are dysfunctional'

Russia's intelligence shortcomings can also be partially put down to Putin's rigorously top-down and authoritarian approach to governance, which stifles the self-initiative needed for proper functioning. In addition, experts said, Russian intelligence efforts in recent years have largely been focused on quelling internal dissidents, rather than warding off external threats.

Pavel Luzin, a Russian politics expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in the US, told DW there are signs of deterioration in the whole security apparatus.

Moscow terrorist attack an 'embarrassment' for the Kremlin

"We see that the Russian security services are dysfunctional despite their scale. People just don't execute their duty without an order," he said. "This means a deterioration of the Russian security institutions."

Russian political observer Dmitry Kolezev, a journalist who runs the independent news portal Republic, shares this view. 

"The intelligence services are focused on political investigation and intimidation of citizens. They do not fulfill their direct responsibility to protect society from real threats," he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Security services busy with Ukraine, protecting Putin regime

The March 22 attack looks like a grandiose failure on the part of the state, added Kolezev.

But Russian-American scholar Mironova told DW she isn't surprised no one is available to fight terrorism in Russia.

"It's harder to react to any terrorist attack because everyone is busy fighting the war in Ukraine. The security services internally, they are busy arresting peaceful activists and protecting the Putin regime," she said.

However, Mironova feels the whole affair may not puncture Putin's image in the end, as he has been at pains to show he is still in control. 

"The visuals of the alleged perpetrators appearing to have been beaten when they were brought to court, with an ear cut off, convey a message of Putin's firm handling of the issue," she said.

One of the suspects of the deadly terror attack on the Crocus City Hall is seen before appearing at the Basmanny District Court in Moscow
The main suspects have been identified in Russian media as Tajik nationalsImage: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu/picture alliance

Experts believe this won't prevent attacks from happening in the future. But if they do, the reaction from the regime will be the same.

"Any new attack leads to the expansion of the 'security theater' in Russia because various actors within the Russian bureaucracy will try to gain authority and power from the attacks," said Luzin.

Edited by: Timothy Jones