On Friday, March 22, gunmen toting assault rifles stormed Crocus City Hall, west of Moscow in the Krasnogorsk district, shot the guards and, as graphic videos show, opened fire on the concert audience without restraint. More than 6,000 tickets had been sold for the performance by the famed Russian rock band Piknik. At least 137 people were killed and many more wounded, some critically; the final death tally could be higher. That even more people were not shot may owe to the perpetrators’ plan to decamp before Russian security forces arrived on the scene. In a move that seemed calculated to maximize the terror, generate publicity, and broadcast the Russian government’s ineptitude, the assailants set parts of the building ablaze. According to some reports, 90 minutes elapsed before Russian special forces arrived. Putin waited until Saturday afternoon before addressing the Russian people in a televised address. By then, an offshoot of the Islamic State, Islamic State–Khorasan (IS-K), had already claimed responsibility.  

The attack reverberated through Russian society, but also rattled the government, which was caught unaware and unprepared. For Putin, the attack came at a particularly bad time. He had been basking in his recent electoral victory—no surprise, since any candidate with even a slight chance to garner votes of a meaningful magnitude had been declared ineligible to run—and talking up the Russian army’s capture of the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka and its grinding westward advance. Putin has always presented himself as a leader to whom Russians can confidently entrust their safety. Yet even before the attack by IS-K, that image had been tarnished by Ukrainian drone attacks on more than a dozen of Russia’s 44 oil refineries and incursions into provinces adjacent to the Russia–Ukraine border by anti-Putin insurgents, both of which brought the war into Russian daily life. Furthermore, on March 16, while the Russian presidential election was still underway, Ukrainian missile attacks forced the governor of Belgorod province to order the closing of schools and shopping centers for two days. But those embarrassments and failures were nothing compared to the Crocus City Hall massacre, the most spectacular attack on Russian territory in nearly twenty years. (The two worst attacks in Russia before this one occurred at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia in 2004 and at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in 2002. More than 330 people died in the Beslan attack and at least 130 in Moscow; both were perpetrated by Chechen militants.)

The attack challenges the tough-guy image that has been Putin’s stock-in-trade for nearly a quarter of a century.

The concert hall attack doesn’t threaten Putin’s hold on power, but it certainly challenges the competent, tough-guy image that has been his stock-in-trade for nearly a quarter of a century. To distract from the state’s security lapse, the Kremlin’s most strident spokespeople lost little time trotting out a time-worn strategy: blaming Ukraine. Margarita Simonyan, director-general of RT, Russia’s state-run television channel, scoffed at the theory that the attack was the handiwork of IS and called it a Ukrainian operation, adding for good measure that Western intelligence agencies had played a “direct” role in it. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, reacting to American officials’ statement that Ukraine had played no part in the plot, retorted that such exculpations of Ukraine amounted to evidence of Kyiv’s culpability given that the investigation into the incident had yet to be completed. “The terrorist activities of the Kyiv organized crime group by American liberal democrats,” she declared, had been “going on for many years.” Well-known media personalities who routinely reinforce the government’s political pronouncements also chimed in to point fingers at Ukraine. One of them, Sergei Markov, said that “the Pentagon” knew about the attack in advance and bore responsibility for the operation, which was organized by “Ukrainian military intelligence.” In the televised statement following the attack, Putin didn’t blame Ukraine’s leaders directly (nor mention IS-K), but he did say that four terrorists had been caught while trying to flee across the Russia-Ukraine border, where “a window was opened for them.” Since then, he has acknowledged the role of “radical Islamists” in the attack but continued to speculate about their true motives. The attack’s perpetrators had a “customer,” he alleged on Monday—and who else but the country Russia is at war with?

The Russian government’s key theme has been that the attack underscores the necessity of waging war with Ukraine relentlessly—a rallying cry which, at the very least, amounts to an indirect if transparent effort to implicate its government in the terrorist plot. Ukraine, for its part, was quick to declare the allegations absurd, a desperate attempt to deflect attention from the Russian state’s failures. President Volodymyr Zelensky, for his part, noted that Putin had remained silent for many hours following the shooting.

The extent of the security lapse was made worse by the fact that Russia might have known an attack was coming. On March 7, the American embassy in Moscow issued a terrorism alert warning of possible attacks, including on concerts. But on March 19, three days before the mass shooting at the concert hall, Putin dismissed that warning as “outright blackmail” and a scheme “to intimidate and destabilize our society.” The Russian media has not mentioned this warning.

If the allegations against Ukraine are baseless and we can take IS-K’s claim of responsibility seriously, there are several plausible motives for its attack. To make sense of them, we first need to understand the recent history of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which I’ll refer to here as IS, emerged in 2013. A year later, the group announced the creation of a “caliphate,” which covered parts of western Iraq and eastern Syria—a testing ground for a state based on its conception of true Islamic political and social principles. The caliphate came to an end by 2019 as a result of a military campaign by the United States and its local allies, most importantly Syrian Kurdish fighters opposed to the Russian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad. That same year, IS’s “emir,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (his nom de guerre), died during an October 2019 American military raid in northwest Syria, reportedly after activating a suicide vest.  

The caliphate’s collapse scuttled IS’s most spectacular achievement, but the proto-state’s progressive loss of territory did not stop the movement and its transnational affiliates from conducting terrorist operations, some of which were daring and dramatic. The April 2019 Easter attack in Sri Lanka killed 359 people. In August 2021, as American troops departed Afghanistan, IS conducted a suicide bombing at Kabul airport that claimed at least 170 lives, including those of 13 American military personnel. In the ensuing years, it struck additional targets in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan and Iran. No attack, though, equaled its slaying of 1,500 or more Iraqi Shia cadets outside the Tikrit Air Academy in 2014.  

The IS affiliate that carried out the Moscow attack, IS-K, arose following a 2015 split within the Taliban caused by the belief of some members of its Pakistan wing, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), that the Taliban’s leaders were not following the principles of Islam, including the sharia code, faithfully. That conviction led them to pledge fealty to IS, and they were joined eventually by like-minded Islamist groups from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. IS-K’s recruitment and operations have encompassed Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia (parts of which constitute the historic region referred to as “Khorasan”), as well as Russia’s predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region, which includes, among other territories, Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. The largest proportion of the thousands of men from various parts of Russia who went to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside the IS hailed from the North Caucasus.  

The March 22 attack is not the first conducted by IS and IS-K that has involved the killing of Russians. The others include the October 2015 bomb explosion aboard a Russian airplane flying over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which killed all 234 occupants; the 2017 bomb explosion on the St. Petersburg metro that killed 14 people; the bombing that same year in a St. Petersburg supermarket that also left 14 dead; the September 2022 suicide bombing at the Russian embassy in Kabul; and a string of attacks in the North Caucasus as well as other parts of Russia between 2015 and 2018.

There are many long-simmering tensions underlying these IS and IS-K attacks. First among them is Russia’s 2015 aerial bombing campaign in Syria. Undertaken to prevent the fall of Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite whom IS regards as a heretic, the campaign killed fighters from many opposition groups, many of whom were IS members. Since then, the movement has proven that it has a long memory—and that it does not lack for vengefulness.

Second is the feud between IS-K and the Taliban, which remains fierce. IS-K has condemned Russia’s dealings with its foe, which it has attacked for “befriending Russians, the murderers of Chechen Muslims” and the killers of Muslims in Syria. The Russian government still classifies the Taliban as a terrorist group but has nonetheless been seeking closer ties, diplomatic and even economic, with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the consequent near-rupture of its relations with the West. IS-K has conducted many terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan, including one in Kandahar the day before it attacked the concert venue in Moscow.

The state has moved rapidly to regain public confidence.

Then there’s Russia’s alignment with Iran, which has become more pronounced as Moscow has turned to Tehran to supply some of the drones, artillery shells, and surface-to-surface missiles it uses in Ukraine. IS, a doctrinaire Sunni movement, has conducted terrorist attacks inside Shia Iran, which it regards as an apostate state, and it stands to reason that the group does not look kindly on Moscow’s bond with Tehran.

Reaching further back, there are Russia’s two brutal wars against Islamist separatists in Chechnya—1994-1996 and 1999-2000—which laid waste to the capital, Grozny, and claimed tens of thousands of lives (according to some estimates as many as 160,000 Chechen combatants and civilians). These wars seem too far removed from the present to have been a prime motive for the attack on Crocus City Hall. But as with the Soviet army’s war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, they comport with IS’s persistent depiction of Russia as a country that stands guilty of slaughtering Muslims.

The March 22 attack is unlikely to have much effect on Russia’s politics or its war in Ukraine. Putin’s reputation may have been sullied, but most Russians are consumed by grief and shock. Not only does the state control the media, which gives it an enormous capacity to frame the narrative on the attack and to shield the country’s leadership from blame, it also has formidable means of repression and has demonstrated a willingness to use them against dissenters. Many Russians will accept their government’s account of what happened and who’s to blame. Those who won’t will be deterred by the high price paid by people who publicly criticize the authorities, to say nothing of calling for street protests. Those dissidents who might have had the stature to use this security failure to mobilize demonstrations against the government are dead, imprisoned, or in exile.

Meanwhile, the state has moved rapidly to regain public confidence, touting the arrest of four perpetrators and detainment of eleven others. For good measure the security services—perhaps to show that they were now on the case, perhaps assuming that Russians yearned for revenge—released gruesome photos of the suspects after they had been beaten up and tortured.

As for the war in Ukraine, now entering its third year, Putin will continue to do whatever he can, short of using nuclear weapons, to win it. The attack on the concert hall won’t necessarily change his strategy: the combination of continuing to blame Ukraine while targeting its cities and power grid with drones and rockets will still play well with the Russian public, as it has since the invasion started more than two years ago.

Putin will only face a more serious problem if this attack is followed by others: say, continual Ukrainian attacks on Russian energy infrastructure and defense-related industries plus more cross-border attacks from armed insurgents. If the Russian state fails again to discharge the elemental duty of a government—protecting its citizens—the public’s trust in a leader whose appeal derives in no small measure from projecting strength and competence could quickly erode. If, in addition, the war drags on, Putin’s tactic of deflecting blame onto others for security lapses may eventually wear thin. But for the moment, there’s no evidence that he faces dissent within his inner circle or bottom-up disaffection sufficient to produce rebellions.

Substantial gains on the battlefield might help Putin overcome whatever doubts might have arisen about his leadership. In the meantime, though, he’s managed to control the narrative surrounding the attack by pushing the message that it is an occasion for Russians to demonstrate their resilience, compassion, and patriotism. Left unsaid, but well understood by Russians, is that other reactions, especially those that point fingers at the state, will signal a lack of these qualities. Few Russians want to be seen in that light: some because they support Putin, others because they are unwilling to face the consequences of opposing him, still others because they largely ignore politics and immerse themselves in the routines of day-to-day life.

Putin’s political position could change for the worse, however, if the war against Ukraine continues with no apparent end in sight, the already substantial number of dead and wounded, estimated to be about 70,000 and 280,000 respectively, continues to rise, and the state resorts to mass mobilization. The political ground could then shift and catch Putin off guard.

Boston Review is nonprofit and relies on reader funding. To support work like this, please donate here.