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Moscow Concert Hall Shooting: Russia Begins Day of Mourning for Victims

Less than a week ago, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia claimed a fifth term with his highest-ever share of the vote, using a stage-managed election to show the nation and the world that he was firmly in control.

Just days later came a searing counterpoint: His vaunted security apparatus failed to prevent Russia’s deadliest terrorist attack in 20 years.

The assault on Friday, which killed at least 133 people at a concert hall in suburban Moscow, was a blow to Mr. Putin’s aura as a leader for whom national security is paramount. That is especially true after two years of a war in Ukraine that he describes as key to Russia’s survival — and which he cast as his top priority after the election last Sunday.

“The election demonstrated a seemingly confident victory,” Aleksandr Kynev, a Russian political scientist, said in a phone interview from Moscow. “And suddenly, against the backdrop of a confident victory, there’s this demonstrative humiliation.”

Mr. Putin seemed blindsided by the assault. It took him more than 19 hours to address the nation about the attack, the deadliest in Russia since the 2004 school siege in Beslan, in the country’s south, which claimed 334 lives. When he did, the Russian leader said nothing about the mounting evidence that a branch of the Islamic State committed the attack.

Instead, Mr. Putin hinted that Ukraine was behind the tragedy and said the assailants had acted “just like the Nazis,” who “once carried out massacres in the occupied territories” — evoking his frequent, false description of present-day Ukraine as being run by neo-Nazis.

“Our common duty now — our comrades at the front, all citizens of the country — is to be together in one formation,” Mr. Putin said at the end of a five-minute speech, trying to conflate the fight against terrorism with his invasion of Ukraine.

The question is how much of the Russian public will buy into his argument. They might ask whether Mr. Putin, with the invasion and his conflict with the West, truly has the country’s security interests at heart — or whether he is woefully forsaking them, as many of his opponents say he is.

Passengers riding the subway in Moscow on Saturday under a screen showing safety instructions after the attack.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

The fact that Mr. Putin apparently ignored a warning from the United States about a potential terrorist attack is likely to deepen the skepticism. Instead of acting on the warnings and tightening security, he dismissed them as “provocative statements.”

“All this resembles outright blackmail and an intention to intimidate and destabilize our society,” Mr. Putin said on Tuesday in a speech to the F.S.B., Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, referring to the Western warnings. After the attack on Friday, some of his exiled critics have cited his response as evidence of the president’s detachment from Russia’s true security concerns.

Rather than keeping society safe from actual, violent terrorists, those critics say, Mr. Putin has directed his sprawling security services to pursue dissidents, journalists and anyone deemed a threat to the Kremlin’s definition of “traditional values.”

A case in point: Just hours before the attack, state media reported that the Russian authorities had added “the L.G.B.T. movement” to an official list of “terrorists and extremists”; Russia had already outlawed the gay rights movement last year. Terrorism was also among the many charges prosecutors leveled against Aleksei A. Navalny, the imprisoned opposition leader who died last month.

“In a country in which counterterrorism special forces chase after online commenters,” Ruslan Leviev, an exiled Russian military analyst, wrote in a social media post on Saturday, “terrorists will always feel free.”

Even as the Islamic State repeatedly claimed responsibility for the attack and Ukraine denied any involvement, the Kremlin’s messengers pushed into overdrive to try to persuade the Russian public that this was merely a ruse.

Olga Skabeyeva, a state television host, wrote on Telegram that Ukrainian military intelligence had found assailants “who would look like ISIS. But this is no ISIS.” Margarita Simonyan, the editor of the state-run RT television network, wrote that reports of Islamic State responsibility amounted to a “basic sleight of hand” by the American news media.

On a prime-time television talk show on the state-run Channel 1, Russia’s best-known ultraconservative ideologue, Aleksandr Dugin, declared that Ukraine’s leadership and “their puppet masters in the Western intelligence services” had surely organized the attack.

It was an effort to “undermine trust in the president,” Mr. Dugin said, and it showed regular Russians that they had no choice but to unite behind Mr. Putin’s war against Ukraine.

Mr. Dugin’s daughter was killed in a car bombing near Moscow in 2022 that U.S. officials said was indeed authorized by parts of the Ukrainian government, but without American involvement.

U.S. officials have said there is no evidence of Ukrainian involvement in the concert hall attack, and Ukrainian officials ridiculed the Russian accusations. Andriy Yusov, a representative of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, said Mr. Putin’s claim that the attackers had fled toward Ukraine and intended to cross into it, with the help of the Ukrainian authorities, made no sense.

In recent months, Mr. Putin has appeared more confident than at any other point since he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russian forces have retaken the initiative on the front line, while Ukraine is struggling amid flagging Western support and a shortage of troops.

Inside Russia, the election — and its predetermined outcome — underscored Mr. Putin’s dominance over the nation’s politics.

Near Red Square in Moscow on Saturday. The area is closed as part of increased security measures after the terrorist attack on Friday.Credit…Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Mr. Kynev, the political scientist, said he believed many Russians were now in “shock,” because “restoring order has always been Vladimir Putin’s calling card.”

Mr. Putin’s early years in power were marked by terrorist attacks, culminating in the Beslan school siege in 2004; he used those violent episodes to justify his rollback of political freedoms. Before Friday, the most recent mass-casualty terrorist attack in the capital region was a suicide bombing at an airport in Moscow in 2011 that killed 37 people.

Still, given the Kremlin’s efficacy in cracking down on dissent and the news media, Mr. Kynev predicted that the political consequences of the concert hall attack would be limited, as long as the violence was not repeated.

“To be honest,” he said, “our society has gotten used to keeping quiet about inconvenient topics.”

Constant Méheut contributed reporting.

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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