Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 26 March 2024

 Putin’s Ukraine obsession has blinded him to dangers at home

Hanna Notte The author is the director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies · Mar 26, 2024

Soon after Friday’s terrorist attack killed at least 137 people in Moscow, Russian pundits and politicians insinuated that the attackers had links to Ukraine. This came as little surprise. It has become standard for the Kremlin to blame Ukraine for Russia’s internal blunders and accuse it of making common cause with nefarious forces.

In October, Russia asserted that antisemitic riots at Makhachkala airport in the Dagestan region were inspired by Ukraine. Moscow has also alleged that Kyiv and Washington are attempting to recruit Isis fighters into Ukraine’s armed forces. Still, Russia’s latest rhetoric underscores just how deeply Vladimir Putin has become alienated from the US, which he once viewed as a partner in fighting terrorism. More ominously, Russia’s blame game may also signal military escalation against Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s playbook is much older than its war against Ukraine. When terror attacks rocked Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s amid the second Chechen war, Putin exaggerated crossborder links between Chechen fighters and al-Qaeda. Russia’s new government framed its own terrorist threat as part of “an extremist international . . . stretching from the Philippines to Kosovo”. The goal was to link Russia’s controversial counterterrorism campaign in Chechnya to US President George W Bush’s post-9/11 “global war on terror”.

A little over a decade later, Moscow would engage in another attempt at bandwagoning with American counterterrorism efforts. On the eve of Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war in September 2015, Putin took the stage at the UN General Assembly to call for a “genuinely broad international coalition” against terrorism. Urging coordination between Russia and the US-led coalition fighting Isis in Syria and Iraq, Putin even invoked the second world war, when the Soviet Union and the US jointly fought Nazi Germany.

Russia’s framing of last week’s attack at Crocus City Hall differs from these past efforts in important ways. First, the nature of the argument is different, in that Russia has moved from half-truths to full fabrications. When Putin asserted links between Chechen terrorists and alQaeda in the early 2000s, he was exaggerating but not outright lying. At the time, al-Qaeda sought to export Islamic militancy into central Asia and Russia. Connections between the group and Chechnya, however tenuous, did exist.

Today, Russia’s assertions that Kyiv and, by extension, the US are the puppeteers behind the shooting spree are pure fantasy. In several communications, Isis has claimed responsibility.

Washington had publicly warned of such an attack two weeks ago. Of course, Russia has shown a penchant for making bogus claims about Ukraine before. Think only of the unsubstantiated assertions in 2022 that Kyiv was experimenting with deadly biological weapons to create “monster” troops in US-funded biolabs.

Not only have Russia’s assertions about the transnational nature of terrorism evolved from hyperbole 25 years ago to outright hogwash today. The Kremlin’s goals have also changed beyond recognition. Pushing the Chechen/al-Qaeda nexus in the early 2000s, Russia sought to justify its brutal actions in Chechnya and to move closer to the US. In bandwagoning with the “global war on terror”, Putin hoped for intensified co-operation with Washington on counterterrorism and beyond.

Today, Russia’s discourse seems intended to justify inaction, rather than action. Putin’s vaunted security apparatus, obsessed with pursuing proclaimed enemies of the state, proved unable to prevent Russia’s deadliest terrorist attack in 20 years. If Russia’s propaganda machine can convince the public that the evil, omnipotent US is ulti- mately responsible for the attack as the puppeteer behind Isis, it will put Putin’s failure to keep Russians safe in a different light. Washington is a more formidable enemy than Isis, after all. It is also conceivable that Putin might use such falsehoods, among other reasons, to justify military escalation against Ukraine.

More than anything, Russia’s current framing of the threats it faces shows just how far Putin has travelled since consol- idating power in the early 2000s: from cosying up to America as a counterter- rorism partner to brushing off its warnings with callous disregard and para- noid suspicion, and from proclaiming unity of purpose with Washington against terrorism to disparaging it as the creator of terrorist forces. Putin’s obses- sion with Ukraine has made him blind to the real dangers to Russia, lurking abroad and at home.

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