Putin’s Ukraine Plan at Heart of Response to Moscow Attack

(Bloomberg) -- President Vladimir Putin had a choice: blame Ukraine directly for the deadliest terrorist attack on Moscow in more than two decades, or for now just hint at it.

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That the Russian president made the link either way, in spite of Islamic State claiming responsibility and the US warning Russia beforehand of the plotting by the Jihadist group, speaks volumes. It is the kind of thing Kremlinologists will pore over when it comes to deciphering Putin’s true intentions about where his war against Russia’s neighbor is headed in its third and potentially decisive year.

“The obvious route for the Kremlin to spin this is that it’s something to do with the war in Ukraine,” said Charles Lichfield, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center in Washington.

History shows that Putin’s modus operandi is a firm response.

He did so when one-time acolyte Yevgeny Prigozhin led a mutiny with his mercenary group last summer that threatened to become the biggest threat to Putin’s quarter-century rule. It happened also more than two decades ago when a Muslim insurgency spilled over at his door in the form of Chechen gunmen seizing around 1,000 hostages in a theater, one traumatic moment that everyday Russians will compare to what Americans felt on Sept. 11 and a narrative that will surely be re-activated now.

The takeaway from both episodes is clear, according to Western officials speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss their interpretation of events. Prigozhin died in somewhat mysterious circumstances in a plane crash two months after his insurrection. And Putin’s reputation as a leader bringing order and stability to chaos was in part built over his tough-guy reaction to the theater hostage crisis.

That would have come rushing back into the collective consciousness when reports broke Friday night about gunmen with automatic weapons raiding the Crocus City concert hall around 8:15 p.m. local time. The death toll was at least 133 people by the time Putin gave his first public remarks less than 24 hours later.

The Russian leader laid the groundwork carefully. A “window,” he said, had been prepared for four suspects to cross the border into Ukraine. The four were arrested by Russian security services.

That’s even as officials in Kyiv preemptively denied any role and called the attack a false-flag operation by the Kremlin. Islamic State posted a photograph of the men the group said carried out the assault. US and European officials indicated Saturday they had no reason to doubt the militant outfit’s claim.

All this foreshadows potentially ominous decisions about the Kremlin’s plans to step up attacks on Ukraine, after Putin claimed an unprecedented 87% support in last week’s presidential election and as rumors swirl about another large-scale mobilization of troops to try to seize more Ukrainian territory.

In the aftermath of the concert hall attack Putin leaned into the political messaging for a domestic audience, one that is increasingly cut off from the rest of the world. Russia has been heavily sanctioned by Ukraine’s allies for its invasion, while Putin has denuded the remaining political opposition and stifled the media.

“They were trying to hide and were moving toward Ukraine,” Putin said in his five-minute televised address. He was referring to the suspects he said were attempting to flee. “Based on preliminary information, a window for crossing the border was prepared for them by the Ukrainian side.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in response that the Russian leader was seeking to condemn others for the Moscow shooting. “What happened yesterday in Moscow is obvious: Putin and the other scum are just trying to blame it on someone else,” he said on his Telegram channel.

The tragedy was a throwback to an earlier time in Putin’s reign when suicide bombings, most of them blamed on Islamists from within Russia or its neighbors, killed scores of people. It shattered the illusion of security in Moscow that Putin has sought to cultivate since he invaded Ukraine.

Islamist groups have targeted Russia in the past citing what they call the anti-Muslim policies of the Kremlin. The seizure of a school in Beslan in the south of the country led to more than 330 fatalities, many of them children, in 2004. In 2010, twin suicide attacks in Moscow subway stations killed at least 40, while a suicide bomber killed 15 in the St. Petersburg subway in 2017.

Putin’s comments so far likely reflect his effort to control the narrative in Russia about his decision to invade Ukraine.

The ground offensive has come at an economic cost even as his bet to try and outlast what he calls the “the West” is taking form, and has probably defied the doom sayers about what sanctions could do to stop him. The US Congress has withheld funds, Europe has fallen short of its commitments to send weapons and Ukraine is repeatedly warning it is running low on ammunition.

So what comes next? Russia has said it doesn’t plan another mobilization after a 2022 draft of 300,000 reservists provoked an exodus of people from the country and triggered a spike in public anxiety about the war. But Putin needs more people on the front lines.

His defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, was shown last week touring a munitions plant that was expanding production of large bombs and artillery. He unveiled plans to create two new armies and 14 divisions by the end of the year, without indicating where Russia would find the nearly half a million troops to serve in them.

That is where current events and Putin’s careful messaging come into play — rallying his troops and focusing Russians on a common enemy.

Putin declared Sunday a national day of mourning and vowed to pursue anyone responsible for ordering and organizing the incursion.

The death toll is set to keep rising. Russian state media will keep playing horrifying images and reminding the public that it is the biggest single loss of life since the Nord-Ost theater disaster. At least 170 people including dozens of attackers died during that botched rescue mission.

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