Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Terror in Moscow exposes Putin's weakness

 Over the weekend, Moscow was the subject of a vicious terror attack. I’ve been very critical of the Russian government since, well, my whole life, as well as the more recent response of many of the Russian people who have bought into the Putinist line that justifies the war on Ukraine, but my criticism does not extend to celebrating the horrific slaughter noncombatants in a civilian location. Whatever my differences are with Russia, I condemn the massacre at Crocus City Hall.

The attack came last Friday, March 22, at about 8:00 pm local time. At least four terrorists were involved and used a combination of guns, bladed weapons, and incendiary devices to kill at least 137 people and injure many more. Videos posted online, some apparently by the attackers, show the vicious and callous nature of the attack. I’m not going to link to them.

Emergency services responding to the attack. By Mosreg.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=146686628

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At least four people have been arrested in connection with the attack although others are presumed to be involved as well. Despite early and continuing unsupported claims by the Russian government (and some of their sympathizers elsewhere) that Ukraine was behind the attack, the men in custody are reportedly from Tajikistan. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Tajikistan is one of those countries that is almost impossible to pick out on a map, at least for most Westerners, myself included. The landlocked Central Asian country is to the west of China and was formerly a part of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The CIA World Factbook notes that Tajikistan is 98 percent Muslim. There is a history of religious conflict, including ISIS activity.

There is also a history of Islamic terror attacks against Russia. Off the top of my head, there was the nightmarish hostage-taking at a school in Beslan in 2004, the bombing of Russian airline Metrojet’s Flight 9268 in 2015, and another attack on a Moscow theater in 2002. That crisis left 120 hostages dead as security forces stormed the building. In reality, there have been a number of other attacks including subway and apartment bombings, many of which might not have received much coverage in the West.

Many of the motives for Islamic terror aimed at Moscow stem from the Russian wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and the more recent Russian intervention in Syria. Chechen terrorists were behind the Beslan massacre and the 2002 theater attack while the Islamic State was responsible for the Metrojet bombing and the recent Crocus massacre.

There is some irony in the fact that Russia is now the target of Islamic terrorists after the Soviet Union provided funding and training for terror groups such as the PLO during the Cold War. When the Pandora’s box of extremism is opened, it can be difficult to control.

Similar to how the September 11 attacks in the US and the October 7 attacks in Israel resulted from breakdowns in intelligence and security, the Russian government does not appear to have handled the Crocus attack well. The US warned Russia of intelligence chatter about a potential attack earlier this month and put out a Security Alert for US citizens on March 7, although that alert only advised against attending “large gatherings over the next 48 hours.”

Vladimir Putin rejected the American warnings with insults, saying, “I would also like to recall the recent provocative statements by a number of official Western structures regarding potential terrorist attacks in Russia.”

“All these actions resemble outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society,” Putin continued.

Perhaps related to the American warning, Reuters reported on March 7 that Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, had foiled an Islamic State cell’s attack on a synagogue in Moscow. This raid makes Putin’s public disregard of the American warning all the more puzzling.

It gets worse.

The Washington Post quoted several Russians who said that security was lax at concert venues such as Crocus, even after the 2002 theater attack. After the Crocus attack started, special response units reportedly took more than an hour to arrive at the scene. The terrorists seem to have carried out the attack unmolested and left the scene before security forces could respond.

If these reports are accurate - and they seem to be supported by video - it is mindboggling. It is unimaginable that terrorists could launch a prolonged attack on an urban target in a Western country and that police would not respond quickly enough to engage them at the scene.

The response may have been slow, but Russian security forces did finally get their men. Or at least they got some men who confessed to the attack under torture. It is somewhat curious that these suspects were taken alive since Islamic terrorists often conduct suicide attacks.

When Putin addressed the nation on Saturday, it was to blame Ukraine for the attack and allege that the attackers were trying to escape to Ukraine. This seems unlikely since that would mean that the terrorists would be moving toward a heavily militarized border.

Ukraine has launched attacks on Russian soil, but these differ from the Crocus attack in several key ways. First, these attacks are normally carried out by drones or sabotage, and second, they typically focus on military or economic targets. More typical is a Ukrainian drone attack that occurred on Monday against Russian refineries in Samara, but there was at least one large-scale drone and missile attack on the Russian city of Belgorod that reportedly killed civilians (although it isn’t clear if they were targeted or hit by falling missiles shot down by Russian air defenses). Sending gunmen to attack a crowded theater is not Ukraine’s modus operandi… but it is for the Islamic State.

On Monday, Putin finally admitted the truth, that “radical Islamists” had carried out the attack, but the Associated Press noted that he still stuck to the story that they were fleeing to Ukraine, a story for which he has not provided evidence. Russian-controlled state media is sticking with the claim that Ukraine is complicit, undoubtedly hoping to stoke nationalist fervor for the war.

Putin may attempt to use the attack to unite Russia behind his war on Ukraine, but the reality is that the attack lays bare the hollowness of the Russian security state. It may be that Russian security forces were more focused on crushing dissent and murdering Alexei Navalny than preventing terrorist attacks, but even so, Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his Wagner Group rebels made it to the outskirts of Moscow last June.

In both cases, Putin was slow to respond, not appearing for hours to reassure his countrymen.

“In difficult moments, Putin always disappears,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center

Vladimir Putin’s focus is on Ukraine and maintaining power rather than protecting his own people and homeland. Then again, if Putin cared about his people he wouldn’t be sending hundreds of thousands of them to die or be maimed in Ukraine.

I condemn the Crocus massacre and mourn the dead with the Russian people, but I stand by my belief that Russia needs to stop its own campaign of terror against civilian targets in Ukraine. If it’s wrong to walk into a crowded theater and open fire then how much more wrong is it to invade a neighbor and slaughter (and kidnap) its population?

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TRUMP ON TRIAL: The trial date has been set in the Trump hush money case brought by Alvin Bragg in New York. The trial will begin on April 15.

The hush money case is the weakest of the cases against Trump. As I discussed in April 2023, there is no question that Trump cooked his books to cover up his payments to Stormy Daniels, but there are serious legal questions about whether these actions broke the law.

From the Racket News

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