The ghost of Russia’s past wars comes back to haunt Moscow

Gunmen in an entertainment venue. Bodies lying on the cold concrete. Horror that such murder could strike the safety of the Moscow bubble.

These were all present in the horrific aftermath of Friday night’s savage attack outside Crocus City Hall just as they were almost 22 years ago when I was outside the Dubrovka Theatre, where Chechen gunmen took 800 hostages, and a standoff ended with a special forces raid.

While the theatre attacks of 2002 marked just one of many horrific low points in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Islamist extremism, last night showed that the brutal past has come back to haunt the Kremlin — if, indeed, it ever left.

Yet Putin faces the same sort of Islamist enemy as 2002, in a world transformed. If indeed ISIS-K — the militant group’s Afghan branch — were responsible, as their claim and advance warnings from US officials suggest, it means a new generation of extremists have Russia in their sights, following Russia’s bloody suppression of Islamism in the south.

Twenty years ago, the Dubrovka gunmen were the disturbed product of Russia’s savage anti-terror campaign that summarily executed hundreds of military aged males in Chechnya in the early 2000s.

Friday’s attackers likely spawned from an ideology born online, after the short-lived Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and in the furnace of hotly-suppressed Islamism in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Two decades of state repression have not denied this new wave of anger its bloody agency. Putin’s relentless prosecution of extremism in Russia’s own North Caucasus, co-opting the brutal forces of the Kadyrov family to suppress all dissent in Chechnya, appeared to work for some years, but has not ended the problem. In some new, yet more warped form, the Islamist threat is back, seeking to inflict pain on Russia for its misadventures and brutality in the Middle East.

There is one marked difference from 20 years ago: the Russian state response.

According to videos of the attack, the Crocus City gunmen appeared to run unimpeded for a significant period through a crowded Friday night mall, despite public warnings from the US to the Kremlin for weeks of a threat to public spaces.

In October 2002, the Kremlin’s response was marked by callous yet effective discipline. After days of talks and waiting, an elite unit deployed a knock-out gas to incapacitate the entire theatre.

The likely casualty rate was apparently deemed a preferable and manageable loss, compared to the bloody alternative of a frontal assault.

Authorities even let paramedics remain in the dark about the plan for increased surprise against the gunmen. It was horrific as a plan, but it worked — if keeping losses to around 15% was indeed a palatable goal.

No such state control was witnessed on Friday — the gunmen apparently able to flee at first.

Emergency services personnel and police work at the scene of the Crocus City Hall attack. - Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
Emergency services personnel and police work at the scene of the Crocus City Hall attack. - Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Instead, the Kremlin has been blaming a warped combination of Western prescience, and Ukrainian assistance.

The mere idea, stated by foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, that the gunmen sought to flee to Ukraine — through one of the most violent and militarised borders on earth — shows a Kremlin struggling to explain this horror, even in their own highly controlled information space.

Margarita Simonyan, head of the Russia Today network and a Kremlin mouthpiece, even suggested — with no evidence at all — the ISIS gunmen are in fact Ukrainian. One senior parliamentarian also hinted that the “Ukrainian trace” in these attacks must be answered on the battlefield. Ukraine has strenuously denied any connection with the attack.

It exposes how far adrift and overstretched Putin now is. The safety of his muted, urban electorate in the capital has been entirely sacrificed to his war of choice in Ukraine. Special forces did not race in; they are dead, or busy elsewhere. Even some police have been deployed to the frontlines.

Instead, a vast shopping centre was prey to the same terrors of 2002, the same startling security failure in the capital. After Dubrovka, critics wondered out loud how on earth a van load of armed gunmen in fatigues could have simply driven up to a major theatre in Moscow and walked in? The same happened again, 20 years later, despite Putin’s grip now protected by a surveillance system of cameras and facial recognition he could have never dreamed possible in 2002.

But he is not in control in the ways he portrays. Like with the short-lived coup by former confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s veneer of absolute authority sometimes briefly slips and what is below is terrifyingly chaotic. There is so much the Russian system of authoritarianism cannot quash. It relies on patriarchy, fealty, corruption and a curious sense that the tsar, in this case Putin, will intervene to right palpable wrongs. But he does not. He does not always know how badly his state is functioning. And so, four young men can just roll up with automatic weapons to a vast Moscow mall and set fire to it, after shooting dozens dead.

Two things will likely follow. First, there will be further efforts to suggest Ukraine and the West are somehow involved in these attacks. Moscow will seek to use this moment to justify its war in Ukraine as a response to a yet greater and more urgent threat to the safety of its population. Whether it is able to find a new tool in its kit to wreak revenge on its imagined culprit is unclear; Russia is already functioning at full throttle in Ukraine.

The second is it will likely happen again. The Dubrovka attack was followed two years later by airplanes being blown out of the sky and the catastrophic nightmare of the Beslan school siege. Russia was seen as weak in its most sacred spaces, and more disturbed young Islamists were able to take advantage.

The wider change here is in Russia’s relationship with the West. In 2002, Dubrovka forced Moscow reluctantly yet closer to the United States’ war on terror. Two decades ago, it felt the White House and the Kremlin briefly had common purpose. Now, Moscow finds itself ignoring and politicising Western intelligence warnings about an attack, it then seeks to partially blame on the West, simply because it seems to know – and warn - about the possibility of an attack in advance.

Friday night’s attacks herald a new dark chapter for Putin, one that is deeply familiar to him. An enemy within that his brutal and relentless tactics cannot fully vanquish. A West that must be made a scapegoat of. And a state lacking in the basic resources to protect its softest targets.

He has been here before, and the question remains, again, whether Russians are content to turn to him as their protector one more time.

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