Moscow’s Disturbing Reaction to Crocus City Hall Attack

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 46

(Source: RIA Novosti)

Executive Summary:

  • Russia suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks in its history on March 22 when a group of Islamist terrorists attacked Crocus City Hall in Moscow, but the Putin regime’s response appears even more worrisome.
  • Putin has deepened the divide between Moscow and the outside world by suggesting Ukraine and the West were responsible, which has made an expansion of his war in Ukraine more likely.
  • The use of torture on the suspected perpetrators of the attack has made the restoration of the death penalty in Russia more likely, heightened ethnic tensions, and raised the specter that the Putin regime will become more repressive at home.  

On the evening of March 22, a small group of armed terrorists broke into Moscow’s Crocus City Hall, opened fire, and torched a large portion of the facility. More than 150 people were killed—a figure almost certain to rise as many have been hospitalized with serious injuries. The fires caused almost $100 million in damages to the concert venue (RBC, March 26). While ambulances rushed to the scene, some media reports have alleged that law enforcement and the security services were far slower to react. The Kremlin has strenuously denied such claims (Novaya Gazeta Europe; Deutsche-Welle Russian, March 23; Current Time TV, March 25). The authorities managed to arrest at least 11 suspects, including four said to be directly involved in the attack. The Russian security services tortured the suspects to trigger confessions and publicly released videos of the interrogations (, March 24;, March 25). In the immediate aftermath, Moscow officials and commentators offered several, often conflicting versions of the attack (Novaya Gazeta Europe, March 22; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 24). As of now, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have settled on a narrative that acknowledges that Islamist fighters carried out the attack but asserts that Moscow is more concerned with who ordered it, focusing on links between the terrorists and Ukraine. The Kremlin promises vengeance, with many saying that Moscow has been too soft up to now (, March 23;, March 24; Kommersant; Moskovskij Komsomolets, March 25).

The events have already had three significant consequences that cast a dark shadow on Russia’s future. First, the terrorist attack has further divided rather than united Russia and the West, similar to the Chechen bombings in 1999. That year, several deadly bombings of apartment buildings were carried out. Many analysts believe that Putin ordered or at least allowed these bombings to happen to justify the second post-Soviet war in Chechnya and bring himself to power. (For a comprehensive discussion, see John B. Dunlop’s The Moscow Bombings of 1999, 2014;, March 23.) In response to terrorism, world governments typically rally around the state that has suffered an attack. Putin’s general course, his dismissal of earlier Western warnings that a terrorist attack against Russia was imminent, and his suggestions that Ukraine and the West were behind the attack, however, have fomented a different result (; Dossier Center, March 24; March 25). Western governments have expressed their sympathies for the attack but have been sharply critical of the Kremlin’s response and comments. Many in the West suspect that Putin is once again using a terrorist attack to whip up war hysteria in Russia. These observers worry that he will expand his attacks on Ukraine and quite possibly launch new acts of aggression elsewhere (Eurasia Today, March 25).

Second, the Crocus City attack has led many Russians to question the competence of Russia’s security services and Putin’s focus on enemies of his own making rather than on real enemies that have attacked the country. A product of the Committee for State Security (KGB) and the Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin has long feigned that Russia’s siloviki are in full control of the situation. The recent attack, nevertheless, demonstrates that these agencies, however effective they might be against the opposition or Ukraine, are not all that powerful against real enemies (Novaya Gazeta Europe, March 23; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 24). The Kremlin leader’s response to this attack suggests to many Russians that Putin is more interested in exploiting such events to serve his own purposes rather than protect Russia. Thus, he bears responsibility for the terrorist act even if he did not play any role in orchestrating it (, March 23; Novaya Gazeta Europe, March 23, 25;, March 24).  

Third, Moscow not only used barbaric torture methods against those who carried out the attack but, in an unprecedented development, also publicly displayed and played up the abhorrent interrogations (New Times, March 25). This approach has simultaneously encouraged Russians who want revenge to lash out at ethnic minorities and migrants across the country, as well as other groups the Putin regime has identified as “enemies” (, March 24). It has also sparked new demands for tightening controls and restoring the death penalty (; Meduza, March 25). For those Russians concerned with human rights, the Kremlin’s reaction has stoked fears that the Crocus City Hall attacks will mark a turning point in Russian history toward even greater repression than the country has ever experienced (The Moscow Times;, March 25).

All this has led some commentators to suggest that the reaction of the Russian state and Russian society has been far more frightening than the terrorist attack itself (, March 23;, March 25). Evidence is growing that the consequences of the March 22 attacks are already spreading, including mass evacuations prompted by telephone terrorism, delays in deliveries, and cancellations of various public celebrations, including at least one so far of the Victory Day (May 9) commemorations (;;, March 25). Demands for the death penalty to be restored have also increased, as have calls for tighter control over or even outright expulsion of migrant workers (;, March 24;, March 25). These developments have led to increased concerns that relations among the various nationalities of the Russian Federation are at risk of deteriorating (, March 23).

Most analysts agree that Putin will use the attack and the tense atmosphere to tighten the screws further, possibly taking radical steps such as pushing through a restoration of the death penalty or doing away with the non-Russian republics (Idel.Realii, March 24;;, March 25). Some observers suggest, however, that the consequences may be even more sweeping and may very well backfire against the Kremlin and even Putin himself. On the one hand, there is every reason to believe that criticism of the Russian security services will intensify, given their failures in preventing and responding to the Crocus City attack. These lapses could prompt Putin to clean house, even though this segment of his government has long been viewed as his most important power base. That, in turn, could trigger the most serious clash within the Russian elite since Putin became president (Meduza, March 24; New Times, March 24, 25; Svoboda, March 25). On the other hand, such popular anger directed at the security agencies could lead other segments of the population to blame Putin directly and demand he change course (Svoboda; Novaya Gazeta Europe, March 23).

Security officials themselves may become angry at Putin and link up with others who blame the Kremlin leader for the terrorist attack. If that situation materializes, it could call into question the survival of Putin’s regime and lead him to take even more draconian measures to try to save himself.

Beyond domestic threats, the international consequences of the Crocus City attack are perhaps even more stark. Some commentators warn that the terrorist attack will be for Russia what 9/11 was for the United States and lead Moscow to take more dramatic moves in Ukraine and elsewhere (Eurasia Today, March 25). One opposition figure, Grigory Yavlinsky, even suggests that the concert hall attack could easily become “a present-day Sarajevo,” where the murder of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered the outbreak of World War I (, March 24). That take may be hyperbolic, but it indicates just how significant the Moscow attack threatens to become.