How Putin’s Police State Leaves Russia Vulnerable To Terrorist Attacks – Analysis


By Steve Gutterman

(RFE/RL) — A week after the last Russian presidential election, in 2018, a fire at a crowded mall in Siberia killed more than 60 people, many of them children.

Five days after the conclusion of this year’s voting, camouflage-clad gunmen opened fire at a concert hall just outside Moscow, killing at least 115 people in an attack claimed by the militant group Islamic State.

The Kremlin casts President Vladimir Putin as something close to a savior, a strong leader who has brought stability and security following the chaos of the Soviet collapse.

The mass-casualty events that have punctuated his nearly 25 years as president or prime minister — and the recurring images of explosions, flames, and helpless victims desperate to escape harm — badly undermine that narrative. Instead, analysts say, they tell a story of a leader whose focus on the protection and prolongation of his own power have come at the expense of the security of the people.

Putin’s critics say that more than three decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia remains a country in which the state puts its own interests far above those of its citizens.

The biggest example is the war against Ukraine: Before the full-scale invasion of February 2022, when Russia was massing tens of thousands of troops at the border and the United States was warning that the onslaught could begin any day, many observers predicted Putin would hold back because a massive attack would harm Russia’s security, not improve it.

With the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has come a dramatic intensification of the clampdown on civil society, dissent, and independent voices that began more than a decade earlier, ahead of Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 following a stint as prime minister.

The government has branded a wide range of peaceful groups and even non-existent organizations “extremists,” from the late opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s outlawed political and anti-corruption outfits to what the state inaccurately describes as the “international LGBT social movement.” It has tried critics on treason charges and sentenced critics of the war in Ukraine to years in prison.

This leaves Russia highly vulnerable to real extremists, analysts say, and to deadly disasters in which corruption, corner-cutting, and negligence cause or exacerbate the effects of avoidable accidents like the fire at the Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo in March 2018, seven days after Putin was declared the winner of that month’s presidential election.

“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,” Russian political observer Dmitry Kolezev wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

‘A Grandiose Failure’

The March 22 attack at the Crocus City Hall outside Moscow “looks like a grandiose failure” on the part of the state, he wrote. “Fantastic amounts of money are spent on ‘security,’ but in reality, this security is not provided.”

Under different circumstances, the political opposition and independent journalists would press the government on this problem, seeing to ensure that security forces do their job and that money is not misspent, Kolezev wrote. “Unfortunately, neither of these groups has access to national television, where they could speak quite loudly about this.”

Instead of serving as checks on the state authorities, in other words, these groups are their targets.

“Russian security personnel have been trained to look at specific, politically important ‘threats,’” Andras Toth-Czifra, a fellow with the Eurasia Program at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, wrote on X, adding that “due to resource/time/manpower constraints this means that they have less capacity to look at and prevent actual threats.”

Once an attack or a deadly accident has occurred, the strategies and tactics applied by the Russian authorities have frequently exacerbated its effects, leading relatives of victims to accuse Putin’s government of callousness or negligence.

Putin’s sluggish reaction to the Kursk submarine disaster during his first year in office is an example, and experts say bungled responses to the Nord-Ost theater attack in Moscow in 2002 and the Beslan school hostage crisis in North Ossetia in 2004 increased the casualty counts.

The predominance of the priorities of the state and its senior leaders over the interests of citizens is not a new problem: It stretches back to Soviet times and the tsarist era, and it’s a phenomenon that dissidents, rights activists, and opposition politicians say must be reversed if Russia and its people are to thrive.

But Kremlin critics say it has become more pronounced as Putin’s rule drags on.

Among other things, they point to the war in Ukraine, which has caused hundreds of thousands of Russian casualties even as Putin, securing a new six-year term in what opponents and analysts say was a tightly controlled vote marred by millions of falsified votes, used the election to portray himself as the indispensable leader of a deeply united country.

  • Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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