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Terrorist attack exposes Putin’s vulnerabilities in Russia

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When Vladimir Putin finally spoke about the worst terrorist attack to hit Russia in 20 years, he swept over the glaring failure of his security state to prevent the assault, which left at least 133 dead, despite a clear warning from the United States on March 7 that a strike on a concert hall could be imminent.

He also made no reference to the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attack at the Crocus City concert hall on Friday and which Putin denounced repeatedly as an enemy throughout Russia’s long military intervention in Syria. In 2017, Putin declared victory over the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Putin instead used his five-minute televised address on Saturday to emphasize that the four direct perpetrators were “moving toward Ukraine” when they were detained and that “a window was prepared for them from the Ukrainian side to cross the state border.” He did not directly accuse Ukraine, which has denied any involvement, but a reference to “Nazis” — his usual label for the Ukrainian government — made clear that he was blaming Kyiv.

But the gruesome videos of the attackers with automatic weapons coldly murdering innocent concertgoers and setting ablaze one of the Russian capital’s most popular entertainment venues smashed through Putin’s efforts to present Russia as strong, united and resilient.

The strike occurred just five days after his triumphant claim of a new six-year term in an election that was heavily controlled by the Kremlin and widely denounced abroad as failing to meet democratic standards. Putin used the election to assert huge public support for his policies.

Despite Putin’s rhetoric seeking to implicate Ukraine, analysts, former U.S. security officials and members of the Russian elite said the assault underscored the vulnerabilities of Putin’s wartime regime, which were also evident when Yevgeniy Prigozhin led his Wagner mercenaries in a brief mutiny aiming to oust top defense officials in June.

“The regime shows its weakness in such critical situations, just as it did during the mutiny by Prigozhin,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. Though Prigozhin abandoned the uprising, the damage was clear. Then, as during this weekend’s events, Putin did not appear for hours before finally addressing the emergency. “In difficult moments, Putin always disappears,” Kolesnikov said.

Just three days before the Crocus City assault, Putin dismissed the U.S. warning about a potential imminent terrorist attack as “open blackmail” and as “an attempt to frighten and destabilize our society.”

But with his authoritarian grip on power and virtually no one willing to challenge him, the Russian leader is unlikely to face any criticism or consequences for failing to take the warning more seriously.

When Russia was hit by terrorist attacks in the past, Putin often accused the West of stoking them, most notably after the Beslan school siege of 2004, which left over 330 hostages dead. Then, he claimed the assault had been engineered by those who wanted to weaken Russia and aimed for its “disintegration.”

Analysts said the Russian leader would almost certainly seek to do so this time, as well. A lead Kremlin propagandist, Margarita Simonyan, the head of state broadcaster RT, was already claiming on Saturday that the Americans’ warning ahead of the attack indicated they were participants in preparing it.

The former U.S. officials and analysts said rhetoric blaming Ukraine and the collective West was likely to continue and could lead to further crackdowns as Putin seeks to galvanize his nation for a protracted war.

Others said the bloodshed raised eerie echoes of an era Putin thought was long behind him — during his first two terms as president in the 2000s, when Russia was wracked by deadly terrorist attacks that he later used to justify harsh responses by the military and security services and to strengthen his rule.

They pointed to the apparent lack of adequate security at Crocus City, a huge entertainment and shopping venue on the outskirts of Moscow, despite the warning from the U.S. government.

“Crocus City is a gigantic place with many concert halls,” said one Moscow businessman, noting that the Moscow regional government’s offices are close by. “There should have been serious security, and there should have been a lot of police.”

“There is a lack of responsibility for security at large public events,” the businessman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “Almost the same thing happened 20 years ago during the Nord Ost theater siege, and nothing has changed since then,” he said, referring to the 2002 hostage crisis that left more than 115 dead after Chechen terrorists seized a theater in central Moscow.

A Russian academic with close ties to senior Moscow diplomats offered a similar assessment of Russia’s failure to prevent Friday night’s attack. “It’s clear that we will search for Ukrainian fingerprints and possibly those of Western security services,” the academic said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Putin’s regime often retaliates against critics. “But probably any investigation will find failures by our security services.”

Russia’s security services have poured enormous resources into monitoring the movements of opponents of the Putin regime, using facial recognition technology to track and question those who participated in the recent protest against Putin’s election or who laid flowers in honor of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who died in prison last month.

But providing adequate security for citizens against threats emanating from known terrorist groups appears to have slipped down the list of priorities, analysts said, despite the country consistently facing terrorist attacks over the years, including two claimed or attributed to the Islamic State in 2019.

Earlier this month, the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, said it had foiled an attack being prepared by the Islamic State on a synagogue in Moscow and had “neutralized” an unknown number of the group’s militants during a raid in the Kaluga region, southwest of the capital. Kazakhstan later confirmed that two of its citizens were killed in the raid.

Last year, the Tass news agency reported that the FSB had killed two other Islamic State militants planning to attack a chemical facility in Kaluga.

“Everywhere there is the feeling we are living in a police state which is closely watching every citizen,” Kolesnikov said. “People now are often stopped and checked at the entrance to the metro system. At airports, security has become much tougher. … There really is a question how this could happen at all.”

Others said Russian security failures were not an exception, but the norm.

“Unless it’s a really high-profile public event like the Olympics or where Putin is involved … Russia’s guard on serious security is always down,” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “You really need to have an elaborate system focused on these kind of threats, and they have been focused elsewhere.”

During his televised address on Saturday, Putin did not address an assessment by U.S. officials who said there was “no reason to doubt” the claim of responsibility by a branch of the Islamic State based in Afghanistan.

Russian state media however has broadcast footage of at least two of the alleged attackers being interrogated, including one in which the suspect spoke Tajik, the language of Tajikistan, a Central Asian country bordering Afghanistan.

The former U.S. officials said the potential terrorist threat emanating from Central Asia had become a blind spot of the Putin regime while it focused on pursuing political enemies in Russia and on threats resulting from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, including drone strikes and cross-border attacks.

“They have not prioritized the threat from ISIS that includes many Central Asians,” said Douglas London, a former senior CIA officer who has specialized in counterterrorism and Central Asia and serves as an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “Thousands of Central Asians joined the Islamic State, and many returned from Syria and Iraq after the loss of the caliphate. A lot of them rose to very senior positions and had come from either the army, the police or the intelligence services of a number of Central Asian states.”

“The Central Asian element of ISIS had always targeted Russia,” London added. “I don’t think there is shock and surprise in Russian intelligence that there was an issue. It just simply wasn’t sufficiently high on their agenda.”

Mary Ilyushina in Berlin and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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