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Moscow attack dents Putin’s tough image but may help him in Ukraine war

Long after the battles in Chechnya died down, Russia suffered a series of deadly attacks, including the 2002 siege at a Moscow theatre and the 2004 hostage crisis at a school in Beslan in the south. Other attacks targeted public transportation, including plane and airport bombings linked to Chechen separatists, and later to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

But these have been rare in more recent years as Moscow-backed regional strongman Ramzan Kadyrov used his feared security forces to stabilise Chechnya. Friday’s attack revived the sense of Russian vulnerability that Putin has sought to replace with strong control and domestic stability, despite the war in Ukraine.

Kremlin critics assailed Putin for focusing Russia’s massive police and security services on stifling political opponents, human rights groups and LGBTQ+ activists while leaving the country unprotected from threats by armed extremists.

Maria Pevchikh, a top associate of opposition leader Alexei Navalny who died in an Arctic penal colony last month, said the security agencies were “too busy fighting politicians, activists and journalists, so they didn’t have time left to deal with terrorists.”

Many commentators wondered how the attackers could conduct their deadly raid and leave the entertainment complex without any police response. Officials said the suspected gunmen were arrested hours later in the western Bryansk region as they headed for Ukraine.


“What happened is unique in that for the first time in Russia, during a terror attack of this scale, security forces were unable to prevent the terrorists’ action in any way: they freely entered the building, killed and wounded scores of people, and calmly left the scene of the massacre,” political analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote in a commentary. “Years of tightening security and trillions or rubles were spent in vain.”

US officials confirmed the claim of responsibility by the Islamic State affiliate and also said they had shared information earlier this month with Russia about a planned assault in Moscow, adding there was no Ukrainian involvement whatsoever.

But three days before the attack, Putin denounced the US warning as an attempt to frighten the Russians and “blackmail” the Kremlin ahead of the presidential election.

Mark Galeotti, head of the Mayak Intelligence consultancy, said Putin had suffered a major blow to his image as the “tough defender of the motherland”.

He said the raid – the deadliest attack on Russian soil in two decades – would eat at Putin’s legitimacy, creating “that slow and accelerating sense that this is no longer the Putin that was, that he’s no longer really fit for the times, that he’s no longer able to deliver on his promises”.

Galeotti countered allegations by some Kremlin critics that a slow and bungled official response to the attack was a possible sign of a false flag operation, arguing it’s always challenging for authorities to avert such bloodshed.

“It’s often quite difficult to identify terrorist plots, especially relatively small-scale ones, before they happen,” he said in a podcast. “Sometimes terrorists will always get through, regardless of how able your counterintelligence officers, how many police you’ve got, how many cameras you have.”

Putin did not mention the Islamic State group and instead said the suspected gunmen were arrested while trying to escape to Ukraine through a “window” provided to them in advance, even though they reportedly were seized about 140 kilometres from the Ukrainian border.

Konstantin Malofeyev, owner of a virulently nationalist media outlet, urged the Kremlin to give Ukrainians 48 hours to leave major cities before using “all means” to attack.


Alexander Dugin, a hardline ideologist whose daughter was killed in a 2022 car bombing blamed on Ukraine, called for a “full mobilisation” to “liberate” Kyiv and other big cities.

Putin ordered a partial mobilisation of 300,000 reservists in September 2022 while the Russian army retreated under a swift Ukrainian counter-offensive. The highly unpopular move prompted hundreds of thousands to flee Russia to avoid being drafted.

Last year, the military opted for ramping up recruitment of volunteers attracted by relatively high wages and other benefits. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that more than 540,000 signed military contracts last year.

Russian hawks also have pushed for tough steps like restoring capital punishment, which was outlawed when Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1997. After Friday’s attack, some MPs said they would consider introducing the death penalty, even though the country’s Constitutional Court has forbidden it.

“The issue will be thoroughly considered, and the resulting decision will answer society’s mood and expectations,” said Vladimir Vasilyev, a senior MP with the main Kremlin party, United Russia.


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