Russians back Vladimir Putin in blaming Ukraine for concert hall terror attack

It took Anna and her wheelchair-bound teenage son only about 17 minutes to escape from the second floor of the Moscow concert hall after hearing the first automatic gunshots and take a taxi home.

Just a few hours later, she had no doubt about who was to blame for one of the deadliest terror attacks in Russia’s modern history.

“The terrorists were fleeing towards Ukraine, so it seems to have been Ukraine,” Anna, a 41-year-old insurance broker, told the Financial Times. “They needed something to divert attention from the front lines. And the deaths of Russians, even those not directly involved in the war, including children, have always been a cause of great joy for Ukrainian patriots.”

Her response to the March 22 Islamist attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall concert venue — which killed more than 140 people and left about 180 injured — illustrates how the Kremlin immediately seized the opportunity to use the massacre as a propaganda tool in its war against Ukraine.

Polling carried out soon after the attack shows most Russians believe Kyiv was behind it, although given President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on dissent, it remains difficult to establish how genuine the rise of anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia is.

Anna said she does not watch television and only reads Telegram channels she “trusts”. But she repeated the exact message that Russian propaganda outlets — from official state media to pro-war Telegram bloggers — began to spread soon after the first reports of the massacre.

A police officer conducts a security check on a man at the entrance to Moscow’s Red Square amid tightened security measures after the March 22 terrorist attack at the Crocus City Hall concert venue
A police officer conducts a security check on a man at the entrance to Moscow’s Red Square amid tightened security measures after the March 22 terrorist attack at the Crocus City Hall concert venue © Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Despite Isis having claimed responsibility on the night of the attack, Putin said on Monday the assault fitted a broader strategy of aggression by “the neo-Nazi Kyiv regime”, alleging that the terrorists were fleeing towards the Ukrainian border, where a “window” was open waiting for them.

Moscow has not admitted any faults in its intelligence and security apparatus. Putin officials have since also blamed the US and UK for allegedly backing Ukraine in the plot.

European governments have said they warned Moscow of an increased Islamist threat, and the US embassy in the Russian capital issued alerts in early March warning about an increased risk of Isis attacking public venues.

But Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian security council, a state body, and Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the FSB domestic security service, have instead focused on the Ukraine line, claiming the four alleged terrorists, who show visible signs of having been tortured after their arrest, had confirmed the “Ukrainian trail” during interrogation.

Many Russians surveyed after the attack gave credence to the Ukraine theory. More than 50 per cent blamed the Ukrainian leadership and only about 27 per cent pointed to Isis, according to polling data by OpenMinds, an Anglo-Ukrainian online pollster that shared its results with the FT. Another 6 per cent blamed the “collective west”, namely the US, UK and Nato.

Bar chart of Q: 'Who is responsible for the attack on the Crocus City Hall?' (% of respondents) showing Many Russians believe Ukraine was to blame for the Crocus City Hall attack

More than 75 per cent of respondents considered Putin to be the most reliable or a completely reliable source of information about the attack, OpenMinds data shows.

“If the propaganda and the authorities blame Ukraine as the main narrative, people will believe it, because control over the information space is almost absolute,” said Denis Volkov, a sociologist and director of the independent Russian polling centre Levada.

He said Russians usually called for a “strong hand” and tough response to acts of terrorism on this scale, such as Putin’s pledge to “flush terrorists down the toilet” in 1999 as the Kremlin ordered the bombing of Chechnya.

Putin’s rhetoric this time focused on Kyiv because he views the war as an existential one, pitting Russia against Ukraine and the west, said Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

“Putin believes they want to destroy Russia, so anything that appears to be an attempt to do so is attributed to them. Is it beneficial for Ukraine? Are Ukrainians happy about it? Did they have the technical capability to do it? Then it must be them,” Stanovaya said, although she noted the president’s wording suggested his officials had no solid evidence for the claim.

“He clearly believes it was Ukraine and [that] the lack of evidence so far is because they haven’t searched well enough,” she added. “The rest of the elite follow Putin’s lead.”

Bar chart of Q: 'Who is responsible for the attack on the Crocus City Hall?' (% of respondents by age) showing Younger Russians are more likely to say Isis was responsible for the Moscow attack

However, some in Russia are unconvinced about the Ukrainian trail. According to OpenMinds data, younger people and respondents opposed to the Ukraine war were more inclined to blame Isis rather than Kyiv for the attack. Among opponents of the conflict, 50 per cent blamed Isis, compared with 12 per cent of those who back the war.

“Russians are good at repeating propaganda narratives in opinion polls,” said Aleksei Miniailo, Moscow-based opposition activist and a co-founder of Chronicles, a public opinion research project. This was not so much a “sign of active support” as a “reflection of them feeling unable to make any changes”, he said.

Surveys by Chronicles show many people replied “yes” to general questions, such as whether they supported the war, but “no” to more nuanced queries, such as whether they backed more public money being spent on the war than on social welfare, he added.

After the concert hall attack, Russian authorities took the unusual step of releasing footage of security services torturing and beating the suspects. All four were bruised when they appeared in court on March 24, including one with a bandaged head who had been forced to eat part of his ear after it was cut off by his torturers. Another detainee was brought in on a stretcher and appeared to be unconscious.

A suspect in the shooting attack on the Crocus City Hall concert venue is brought to a defendant’s enclosure on a stretcher at the Basmanny district court in Moscow
A suspect in the shooting attack on the Crocus City Hall concert venue is brought to a defendant’s enclosure on a stretcher at the Basmanny district court in Moscow © Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The use of torture by Russian security services was widely known, said Mark Galeotti, a military expert and honorary professor at University College London. But the release of torture videos “to a largely approving public” was new.

“One would not have expected this kind of bloodthirst in the past,” Galeotti said. But Russians were already on edge after two years of war, increasingly brazen Ukrainian drone attacks and the possibility of another unpopular mobilisation wave, he said.

“It is a population that is frightened and can’t just sit back and let Grandad Putin sort it out. They sense that kind of heightened terror and they’re reacting,” he added.

Anna said she was “very happy” the suspects had been caught. “I watched the videos of their arrest several times, and I felt a terrible rage inside me. When I read that someone feels sorry for them, that they were beaten and didn’t get a lawyer, I want to send them to the ruins of Crocus or to the relatives of those who died there,” she said.

The massacre has intensified political calls in Russia to reactivate the death penalty, which has been under a moratorium since 1996.

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and currently the deputy chair of the country’s security council, was the first to call for a “total executions of terrorists”.

“We must kill them. And we will,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.

The constitutional court technically has the final say on the moratorium, but the real decision lies with Putin. “If the question of lifting the moratorium on the death penalty formally arises, many will be in favour of it,” said Volkov at polling centre Levada.

Anna is one of them. “I will only really calm down when I know that they are dead,” she said. “I hope they will be executed.”

Additional reporting by Courtney Weaver in Berlin

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