Moscow Terrorist Attack Casts Shadow Over Putin’s Presidential Victory – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond

Vladimir Putin this month secured a new presidential term that means his leadership of Russia could continue until at least 2030. By then, he will have served as leader for a total of 26 years.

However, his celebrations were cut short by the horrific attack in Moscow last weekend, which could have key implications for the war in Ukraine.

The attack, the worst case of terrorism in Moscow for about two decades, highlighted yet again the vulnerabilities of the Russian central state, especially while key security resources are diverted to Ukraine.

This was the second time in less than a year that this weakness has been exposed, following the Wagner mutiny last summer led by Yevgeny Prigozhin. What that episode revealed was the fissures that have developed within the elite of the security services and military intelligence over the trajectory of the war in Ukraine.

Another reason why last weekend’s attack is important is that while Russia now appears to be in a significantly stronger position in Ukraine than it was last summer, the regime might still in fact be fragile. This is despite the extraordinary skills Putin has demonstrated in ensuring his political longevity over the past quarter of a century.

Part of the reason why the tragic events of last weekend were a such blow to the regime is that they came so soon after Putin’s election victory.

The attack in Moscow was carried out by a group of armed individuals who opened fire on concertgoers at the Crocus City Hall venue in northwestern Moscow. Responsibility was claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, a branch of the terror group Daesh operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, which it regards as being insufficiently militant.

According to some reports, greater numbers of foreign fighters have joined Daesh from former Soviet republics than any other region. Most of the perpetrators of last weekend’s attack were apparently radicalized citizens of Tajikistan.

Daesh has previously carried out wide-ranging attacks on Moscow’s interests, including an incident in October 2015 when a Russian plane carrying 224 people exploded over Egypt, killing all on board. In 2017, an ISKP suicide bomber blew up a subway car in the St. Petersburg metro system. This month, Russia’s Tass media agency reported that authorities had prevented an ISKP attack on a Moscow synagogue.

The attack last weekend, which resulted in the deaths of at least 137 people, raises troubling questions about the ability of the Russian security apparatus to prevent such deadly incidents. This is especially true, given that Western security services had issued warnings of a threat about two weeks prior.

Russian special forces are thin on the ground at home, and even some police officers have been deployed to the front lines in Ukraine. This seemingly allowed a relatively small number of terrorists to cause deadly chaos for a significant period of time; it reportedly took National Guard troops more than an hour to arrive from their base only about two miles away.

ISKP has released information on social media about the relatively small number of men it said were involved in the attack, along with details of how they planned and executed it.

Putin has linked the activities with Kyiv, saying the terrorists “tried to hide and moved toward Ukraine where, previously, a window had been prepared for them to cross the border.” He also described the attackers as “Nazis,” his oft-used codename for Ukrainians.

At least part of the Kremlin’s motivation for apportioning blame to Kyiv could be an attempt to divert attention and avoid difficult questions about why Russia’s security services failed to take more seriously the advance warnings from the West of an imminent attack.

However, there is also a significant possibility that Putin will use it to double down on the Russian war effort in Ukraine, with potentially key economic, and not just political, implications.

Even before the attack, there were signs of Russia shifting gears in Ukraine. For instance, the Kremlin for the first time declared Russia was involved in a “de facto war” with Ukraine, rather than carrying out a “special military operation,” as had been its previous stance.

The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Lt. Gen. Oleksandr Pavliuk, warned last week that Moscow plans to assemble a force of 100,000 troops for a possible new offensive. This follows a period of sustained Russian battlefield gains, including in the city of Avdiivka in February, which has been fueled in part by lack of weapons supplies to Kyiv from Western allies.

Presuming the Russian war effort continues apace, the most likely scenario in the coming weeks is a continued war of attrition. However, one key difference now compared with the spring of 2023 is that Moscow is making gains on the ground, rather than Ukraine.

Still, attrition seems the most likely scenario while both sides are prepared to expend massive resources, albeit Ukraine’s ability to match Russia in this aspect will depend on an increase in Western financial support this year.

While a war of attrition might imply a degree of stability in the conflict, this is not necessarily the case, and the level and range of risks actually remain very high. This is one reason why the outcome of the war is still so unpredictable.

In the context of VUCA (an established theory about the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous nature of conditions and situations), there might well be further significant “surprises” in the coming weeks. This includes the possibility of major nuclear incidents of some kind, possibly “accidents” at nuclear energy sites.

So the conflict will probably continue for many more months, at least. Even in the most positive scenario for peace, in which major fighting ends this year or next, periodic tensions between Russia and Ukraine will probably continue for much longer.

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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