Putin needs to revisit his priorities after Moscow terror attack

The Kremlin may no longer be able to concentrate all its resources solely on winning the war in Ukraine

Putin needs to revisit his priorities after Moscow terror attack

At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main priority is winning the war in Ukraine, the deadly terrorist attacks in Moscow demonstrate that Russia’s long-standing confrontation with the West is not the only major security challenge his country faces.

After he secured re-election to serve a fifth term as Russian president, Putin made it abundantly clear that he regarded winning the war in Ukraine as his main priority so far as safeguarding Russia’s future security was concerned.

In his victory speech, delivered after securing a historic 87% vote, Putin declared that his main tasks as president would be the war in Ukraine and “strengthening defence capacity and the military.”

Putin may not be forced to reassess his priorities after an offshoot of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organisation claimed responsibility for the deadly assault on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall last Friday, leaving at least 139 dead and the building in flames.

Putin’s initial response was to insist that the attack, despite the fact it had all the hallmarks of a classic IS assault, had been carried out by Ukraine as part of its attempts to damage Russian morale.

Finger pointing

Indeed, the Russian leader continues to insist that Kyiv was somehow involved, even though all the evidence now suggests that it was the work of an IS splinter group, ISIS-K, that is based in Afghanistan—a region of the world not normally associated with Ukraine.

Putin finally acknowledged that “radical Islamists” had carried out the attack after four suspects identified as citizens of Tajikistan were paraded before a Russian court and charged with committing an act of terrorism.

All four suspects showed signs of being badly beaten following their detention by Russian security forces. A video posted on an IS website also showed graphic footage of the gunmen carrying out the attack on the Moscow concert hall.

Putin claimed Kyiv was behind the attack because it wanted to "sow panic" in Russian society.

But while all the evidence clearly pointed to the attack being carried out by Islamist militants who have a long history of conducting acts of terrorism against Russia, Putin has continued to insist that Ukraine was somehow involved.

According to the version of events Putin presented to senior Russian officials, "we know that the crime was committed by the hands of radical Islamists, followers of an ideology that the Islamic world itself has been fighting against for centuries".

But the Russian leader also persisted with his claim that the attackers received help from the Ukrainian government, claiming Kyiv had "prepared a window" to allow the attackers to cross the border and escape into its territory.

Putin claimed Kyiv—what he called "the neo-Nazi regime"— was behind the attack because it wanted to "sow panic in our society and at the same time show their own population that all is not lost for the Kyiv regime.

"The question arises: who benefits from this?" he continued, saying that the Kremlin was still investigating "who ordered" the attack. "This atrocity may be just a link in a whole series of attempts by those who have been at war with our country since 2014 at the hands of the neo-Nazi Kyiv regime," Putin claimed.

Zelensky dismisses claims

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has dismissed the claim, saying it was "absolutely predictable" that Vladimir Putin would blame it on Ukraine "instead of dealing with his Russian citizens, addressing them". 

Putin's continued insistence on Ukrainian involvement no doubt stems from his deep embarrassment that such a deadly attack could be carried out in the Russian capital so soon after his election victory, thereby raising serious questions about the failings of his security forces, with critics saying they were too focused on Ukraine to see the warning signs of an impending IS attack.

Putin has been further embarrassed by reports that Washington gave the Kremlin prior warning that it had received intelligence that IS was planning an attack in Russia—a warning that was ignored by Putin.

The Kremlin's long history of fighting Islamist militant groups dates back to its war in Chechnya in the 1990s. Since then, such groups have periodically attacked Russia.

IS target

Russia has increasingly been a target for IS militants because of the Kremlin's long history of fighting militant groups, dating back to its military campaign in Chechnya in the 1990s.

Russia has also been challenged over its more recent military intervention in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad. IS militants claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on the Russian Embassy in Kabul in September 2022, 

A branch of IS also operates in the Caucasus, including in Chechnya, where separatists have—for years—violently challenged Russia's rule.

Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K)—the group that has claimed responsibility for the latest Moscow attack—is named after an old term for the region that included parts of Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It originally emerged in eastern Afghanistan in late 2014 and quickly established a reputation for extreme brutality. 

The group was also responsible for an attack on Kabul's international airport in 2021 that killed 13 US troops and scores of civilians during the chaotic US evacuation from the country.

General Michael Kurilla, commander of US Central Command, told Congress last March that ISIS-K was quickly developing the ability to conduct "external operations" in Europe and Asia. He predicted it would be able to attack US and Western interests outside Afghanistan "in as little as six months and with little to no warning."

The ease with which the group carried out the deadly attacks against a Moscow concert hall certainly means that the Kremlin will no longer be able to concentrate all its intelligence and security resources solely on winning the war in Ukraine.

Any victory that Putin does manage to achieve in Ukraine will certainly be greatly diminished if it comes at the expense of leaving the Russian people vulnerable to attack from Islamist militants.  

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