Will Putin try to use the Moscow massacre for his war in Ukraine?

The Russian president suggested that Ukraine had planned to help the alleged attackers escape, a claim dismissed by Kyiv, Washington and others.


As emergency workers waded through the rubble of Moscow’s Crocus City Hall on Sunday, also being picked over was the extent to which the attack might damage Russian President Vladimir Putin — or be used as a pretext to bolster his war in Ukraine.

The terror group ISIS has claimed responsibility after camouflaged men stormed the concert hall Friday night and killed at least 137 people with guns, knives and bombs.

For Putin, who has sold his seemingly lifelong leadership on maintaining order, the massacre will be at least deeply embarrassing. It could even weaken his ironclad rule, particularly after he dismissed American warnings that such an attack might be imminent, some experts say.

“It certainly doesn’t strengthen him,” said John Lough, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London think tank. “Within the elite itself, there are going to be questions about where the focus has been: Why has there been all this rhetoric about the war in Ukraine, when in actual fact there are other dangers much closer to home?”

Russian National Guard servicemen secure an area at the Crocus City Hall after Friday's attack.Alexander Avilov / Moscow News Agency via AP

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian former oil tycoon turned arch Putin critic, called security lapses that allowed the attack to proceed “a complete failure of a police state” in a post on X.

It has also not gone unnoticed that Putin waited some 20 hours after the attack to address his country.

When he did give a five-minute speech Saturday, Putin did not mention ISIS, whose Afghan affiliate, ISIS-K, claimed responsibility for the assault, or refer to the likely failure of intelligence services to prevent the assault or the security services to thwart it.

Instead he suggested that Ukraine had aided the attackers by helping plan their failed escape.

“They tried to hide and moved toward Ukraine, where, according to preliminary data, a window was prepared for them on the Ukrainian side to cross the state border,” he said.

Though not acknowledged by the Russian president, ISIS has long targeted Russia, partly because of Moscow’s role in Syria’s civil war where it supported President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces were fighting rebels that included ISIS, according to Mark Galeotti, head of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence and an honorary professor at University College London.

“ISIS-K has long actually regarded Russia as being one of the main enemies,” Galeotti said in a snap edition of his podcast, “In Moscow’s Shadows,” on Sunday. “From their point of view, Russia is a lesser Satan, if America is the great Satan.”

On a surprise visit to Syria in 2017, Putin declared “total victory” over ISIS.

Keir Giles, a consulting fellow also at Chatham House, dismissed Putin’s attempt to link the attack to Ukraine and his references to a “window” on the front line, saying that it would require Russian forces to let them through on their side of a heavily fortified and mined war zone.

“It’s a fairy story,” said Giles, who is the author of 2022’s “Russia’s War on Everybody: And What It Means for You.”

Washington agrees. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said that “ISIS bears sole responsibility for this attack. There was no Ukrainian involvement whatsoever.”

Russian news reports identified the four alleged gunmen detained as citizens of Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia that is predominantly Muslim and borders Afghanistan. Up to 1.5 million Tajiks have worked in Russia and many have Russian citizenship.

On Sunday, four men — Dalerdzhon Mirzoyev, Saidakrami Rachabalizoda, Shamsidin Fariduni and Mukhammadsobir Faizov — appeared on terrorism charges in the Moscow Court, according to court information.

Two had admitted guilt, the court said. All four were ordered held through at least May 22, according to the court.

It was not yet clear whether Putin’s oblique comments were merely an attempt to bolster domestic support for his war in Ukraine, or if he seeks to use the terror attack as a pretext for some other action related to the conflict.

Giles believes it could be used to support another round of mobilization.

Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of reservists in September 2022, which resulted in 300,000 more soldiers being drafted, but military analysts believe another round may be necessary because of the war’s unknown but certainly colossal death toll on both sides.

“This gives an excuse for stepping up conscription mobilization, rounding up the manpower that they need,” Giles said, adding that it allows the Kremlin to enact policies “that would not otherwise be popular.”

Hours after the Moscow attack, Russia launched a wave of strikes on Ukraine, with one long-range missile briefly entering Polish airspace, the country’s military said. But most experts — including Lough, who is currently in Kyiv — said this was likely not a direct retaliation.

“I arrived here on Thursday morning and there was a pretty heavy barrage that night,” he said. “It’s the ongoing effort to try and weaken the will of Ukrainians,” he added. “There’s a lot of psychological warfare here.”