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What's behind Putin's attempts to link Ukraine to Moscow terror attack?

FILE - A group of ambassadors of foreign diplomatic missions visit a makeshift memorial in front of Crocus City Hall, site of a March 22, 2024, terror attack, on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia, March 30, 2024.
FILE - A group of ambassadors of foreign diplomatic missions visit a makeshift memorial in front of Crocus City Hall, site of a March 22, 2024, terror attack, on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia, March 30, 2024.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying, without evidence, to link Ukraine to the recent attack on a concert hall in Moscow to further mobilize domestic public support for Russia's military actions in Ukraine, international security experts tell VOA.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the March 22 attack on the Crocus City Hall music venue in suburban Moscow that killed at least 143 people and injured some 360 others.

Russian authorities have announced the arrests of 12 people they say are connected to the attack, including four suspected gunmen who have been identified as Tajik citizens.

IS-Khorasan, a branch of the extremist organization Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the attack, for which Russia received warnings from U.S. intelligence services in early March. Nevertheless, the Kremlin accused Ukraine of preparing a "window" for the escape of the Tajik citizens accused in the incident.

"It's a cynical but convenient tactic that the Kremlin is using, trying to link the attack to Ukraine," said retired Colonel Robert Hamilton, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and an expert on security issues. "To be clear, Ukraine was not involved in this. Ukraine doesn't commit terrorist acts or war crimes in the conflict against Russia, as Russia does."

Hamilton believes it was not in Kyiv's interest, even in a military-strategic sense, to harm Russia in this way.

"Ukraine has other ways to strike Russia and has done so using underwater and aerial drones, but it has attacked legitimate military or economic targets, not concert venues, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians," he said. "If Ukraine had done that, it would have only mobilized the Russian population and increased support for Putin and the war."

An effort to divert blame

Adrian Shtuni, a senior fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, said a terrorist attack of this scale, especially in a heavily policed city such as Moscow, requires significant planning time, as well as access to money, logistics, weapons and a network of extremists who are able and willing to carry it out in secret.

"By spuriously blaming Ukraine and the West for being involved in the attack, Putin attempted to repackage his failure for domestic consumption in order to divert blame," Shtuni said.

Max Abrahms, associate professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said that all the evidence indicates that Islamic State is behind the attack. He explained how the extremist organization usually functions, using another acronym for the group.

"When ISIS carries out an attack and takes responsibility, it goes through a very specific process," said Abrahms. "It has specific media channels through which it claims responsibility. And now it went through that process and provided additional information, photos and videos, which was confirmed by both the Americans and the Europeans."

IS-Khorasan, with its origins in the province of Khorasan in southwestern Afghanistan, claimed responsibility with an announcement on its media channel. A day later, it published footage of the attack from inside the concert hall.

Seeking support for war

Abrahms said terrorist attacks can strengthen the leader of a victim country, recalling that Putin became stronger politically following attacks by Chechen extremists.

"Leaders know that there can be an increase in public support for the government when there is a foreign operation, especially a terrorist one," said Abrahms. "And Putin tried to gain political momentum towards the war in Ukraine, because he needs all available domestic help when it comes to supporting the war, which is extremely costly, not only for Ukraine, but also for Russia."

Russian authorities confirmed they had received information from American intelligence services earlier in March about a possible terrorist attack but rejected it, with Putin calling it "a provocation and an attempt to undermine national security."

"It turned out that the warnings of the American intelligence service were correct. They referred to major events and were even specific enough to mention concert venues," said Hamilton. "They were published in early March, a few weeks before the attack took place. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow warned citizens to avoid such places for their own safety. Unfortunately, Russia ignored the warnings and attacked the U.S. government."

Hamilton said Russian accusations of Ukraine's alleged involvement in this case are in line with the narrative "that Putin has been trying to advance for years – that the West is at war against Russia."

Given the political situation in Russia, where Putin just won a new 6-year term while the government brutally suppressed any sign of opposition, it remains unclear what effect Moscow's accusations will have on the war in Ukraine.

"Surely there are Russians who will understand that Ukraine is not behind the attack. I have even read reports that there are indications that some important members of Putin's entourage disagree with his efforts to link the terrorist attack to Ukraine. But surely a part of Russians exposed only to what Putin says will support his retaliation against Ukraine," Abrahms said.

'A personal blow to Putin's image'

Shtuni believes the attack at Crocus City Hall represents a significant personal failure for Putin.

"The attack is also a personal blow to Putin's image and credibility, days after securing a fifth presidential term with the promise to keep Russia safe," he said. "The fact that the attack happened while Russia is embroiled in Putin's unprovoked and lengthy war of choice against neighboring Ukraine shows instead how Putin has neglected Russia's internal security."

Shtuni said the Kremlin's push to blame Ukraine dovetails well with a new campaign to recruit 150,000 people into the army.

"Intensified disinformation and military mobilization campaigns may signal an intent on the part of the Kremlin to intensify its illegal war and bloody aggression against Ukraine and its people," he said.