Dilovar Islomov, one of the three suspected accomplices in the March 22 attack.

Taking the Kremlin’s checkered history into account, it’s not surprising that a first reaction to last week’s bloody attack against Moscow’s Crocus City Hall concert auditorium last week was to wonder if Vladimir Putin hadn’t ordered the assault as a pretext for taking the war in Ukraine to a new level. 

Russia has a long tradition of using disinformation and “false flag” operations in which government thugs carry out what looks like a terrorist incident. There has been growing concern lately that Putin’s next step might be to use an incident like this to justify using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

As it turned out, it now seems certain to everyone outside Russia that the perpetrators belong to ISIS-K, or Islamic State-K, a radical Islamic group that claimed responsibility for the attack. The group traces its roots to the attempt to establish an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq several years ago, and it sees the Afghan Taliban, which is friendly to Russia as a mortal enemy. The “K” in the name stands for Khorasan, a region that spans parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

Despite the fact that suicide attacks obviously fit a radical Islamic profile more than a Ukrainian one, Putin has tried to hint that Ukraine was somehow involved in at least offering the attackers an escape route.

Three out of four suspects shown to the press after the Moscow shooting were from Tajikistan. All were badly bruised and bandaged after having obviously been tortured. One, barely conscious, had to be brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair and needed medical attention while being arraigned. 

Despite the fact that suicide attacks obviously fit a radical Islamic profile more than a Ukrainian one, Putin has tried to hint that Ukraine was somehow involved in at least offering the attackers an escape route. Russian media has done its best to shift suspicion to Ukraine.   

A Putin Trick

Putin’s problem is that the Kremlin has lied so often that it is difficult even for Russians to believe him. The assault in Moscow immediately recalled a series of apartment block bombings that preceded the second war over Chechnya in 1999. Back then, a series of bombs destroyed Russian apartment buildings at four different locations.  

Police intercepted several men as they were about to plant explosives at a fifth location, only to discover that the culprits were active agents of the FSB, Russia’s internal spy agency. The Kremlin claimed that the men were on an innocent training exercise. The explosives, however, were very real and hardly anyone believed the Kremlin’s account. The public outcry over the bombings provided the needed pretext to launch the war.

With that kind of history, people inside and outside Russia are likely to take anything Putin says about this latest attack with a heavy dose of skepticism, and in fact, Putin stopped short of accusing Ukraine directly, probably because he is unsure what intelligence the US already has about the bombers.

Both the US and Britain warned Russia as early as March 7 that an attack was imminent. Putin dismissed the warning as silly scaremongering.

The mass shooting, which killed 137 people and left more than a hundred spectators critically injured, has left both Putin and the FSB with egg on their face. 

Putin has long boasted that his strongest point is guaranteeing security. That seems an empty promise now. The FSB was apparently clueless about what was going on. ISIS-K has tried to launch several attacks in Western Europe, but those attacks were thwarted by Western intelligence, which was clearly much more effective than the FSB at intercepting the attackers before they could do any damage. As far as ISIS-K was concerned, Russia was more easily penetrated and a much softer target than Western Europe.   

Mike Johnson, 56th Speaker

Mike Johnson, 56th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. October 25, 2023. Photo credit: US House / Wikimedia

Mike Johnson, Unwitting Kremlin Asset

All this comes as tensions over Ukraine have been steadily increasing both in the US and Europe. Putin has taken some solace from the fact that a small group of pro-Trump Republicans have effectively sabotaged Congress and, at least for the moment, are blocking further US aid to Ukraine. Trump has threatened to cut off aid to Ukraine completely and take the US out of NATO if he wins the next election.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has probably come closer to anyone else in acting as an unwitting Kremlin asset. Knowing that the House would very likely vote to continue aid to Ukraine, he has prevented the issue from coming to the floor of the House for debate. The pretext is that he is more concerned about illegal immigration along America’s southern border than anything happening in Europe. If Trump were to win the next election, Europe is beginning to realize that it would have to go it alone.

The result of Congress’ inaction so far has been to deprive Ukraine of the ammunition and weapons it needs to defend itself. The Russians have made some advances, but not much. 

Ukraine’s Vital Role

Military experts have long considered Ukraine to be the vital centerpiece in the continent’s defense. In the 1980s, the Russians tried to install intermediate-range nuclear missiles along Ukraine’s European border. The missiles, which could have taken out Europe’s leading cities with next to no warning, would have given Moscow leverage to intimidate European countries into doing its bidding. The US countered by installing similar intermediate-range missiles making Russia equally vulnerable. Both sides withdrew their missiles under the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987.  

Trump allowed the treaty to lapse in 2017, claiming that in any case, Putin was no longer willing to honor it.

More potentially dangerous for Putin, Europeans have begun toying with the idea of seizing Russian assets frozen under various sanctions and using the money to finance Ukraine’s defense. 

Unable to continue counting on the US as a global leader, Europeans are desperately trying to consider possible alternatives. French President Emmanuel Macron has twice suggested that NATO might even be forced to step in and aid Ukraine’s defense. For the moment, that has raised heavy objections, notably from Germany, but the idea is now being discussed with some seriousness. 

On January 30, the British navy tested one of its submarine-launched Trident nuclear missiles, which fell into the sea when its first-stage propellant refused to ignite. The missile was not carrying a nuclear warhead, but the fact that the navy felt compelled to do the test seems a clear indication that a new emphasis is being placed on preparedness. The missiles cost roughly $17 million each.

More potentially dangerous for Putin, Europeans have begun toying with the idea of seizing Russian assets frozen under various sanctions and using the money to finance Ukraine’s defense. There are already plans to ramp up European weapons manufacture, even if European technology is not quite up to the level produced in the US.   

Not too long ago, Putin thought that his “special military operation” in Ukraine would be a simple matter of a powerful country intimidating a weaker one. It has turned out to be anything but. The attack by ISIS-K is a reminder that Ukraine is not the only problem he needs to deal with.

Foreign correspondent and author William Dowell is Global Insights Magazine’s America’s editor based in Philadelphia. He is also a contributing editor to Who,What,Why. Tom’s Paine is his regular column. He has also worked for ABC News and other news organizations, including TIME Magazine in Hong Kong, Cairo, and Paris. He has reported from five continents–most notably the War in Vietnam, The Revolution in Iran, the Civil War in Beirut, Operation Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He also taught a seminar on the Literature of Journalism at New York University.

Related articles in Global Insights www.global-geneva.com

 

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