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Shooting in Moscow concert hall: Russia celebrates day of mourning for the victims

Less than a week ago, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin secured a fifth term in office with his highest vote share ever, showing the nation and the world that he is firmly in control with a staged election.

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

Friday’s attack, which killed at least 133 people at a concert hall in a Moscow suburb, was a blow to Putin’s aura as a leader who puts national security first. That’s especially true after two years of war in Ukraine, which he describes as key to Russia’s survival – and which he described as his top priority after last Sunday’s election.

“The election showed a seemingly confident victory,” Aleksandr Kynev, a Russian political scientist, said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “And suddenly, against the backdrop of a confident victory, there is this ostentatious humiliation.”

Mr. Putin appeared surprised by the attack. It took him more than 19 hours to inform the nation of the attack, the deadliest in Russia since the siege of a school in Beslan, in the south of the country, in 2004 that killed 334 people. As he did so, the Russian leader said nothing about the mounting evidence that an Islamic State affiliate had carried out the attack.

Instead, Mr Putin suggested that Ukraine was behind the tragedy, saying the attackers had behaved “just like the Nazis” who “once carried out massacres in the occupied territories” – echoing his frequent, false description in today’s Ukraine run by neo-Nazis.

“Our common duty – our comrades on the front, all citizens of the country – is now to stand together in formation,” 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 accept his argument. You might wonder whether Mr Putin really has the country’s security interests at heart in the invasion and his conflict with the West – or whether he is miserably failing them, as many of his opponents claim.

Passengers rode on the subway in Moscow on Saturday beneath a screen displaying safety warnings following the attack.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for the New York Times

The fact that Mr. Putin appears to have ignored a U.S. warning about a possible terrorist attack is likely to add to the skepticism. Instead of responding to the warnings and tightening security measures, he dismissed them as “provocative statements.”

“This all amounts to complete blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society,” Putin said in a speech to the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, on Tuesday, referring to Western warnings. After Friday’s attack, some of his exiled critics called his response evidence of the president’s distancing from Russia’s real security concerns.

Instead of protecting society from real, violent terrorists, these critics say, Putin has directed his sprawling security services to pursue dissidents, journalists and anyone seen as a threat to the Kremlin’s definition of “traditional values.”

Case in point: Just hours before the attack, state media reported that Russian authorities had placed “the LGBT movement” on an official list of “terrorists and extremists”; Russia banned the gay rights movement last year. Terrorism was also among the numerous charges prosecutors brought against Aleksei A. Navalny, the jailed opposition leader who died last month.

“In a country where anti-terror special forces are chasing online commentators,” said Ruslan Leviev, an exiled Russian military analyst. wrote in a social media post On Saturday, “terrorists will always feel free.”

Although the Islamic State repeatedly claimed responsibility for the attack and Ukraine denied any involvement, Kremlin messengers tried to convince the Russian public that it was simply a ruse.

Olga Skabeyeva, a state television presenter, wrote on Telegram that Ukrainian military intelligence had found attackers “who would look like ISIS. But this is not ISIS.” Margarita Simonyan, the editor of state television channel RT, wrote that reports about the Islamic State responsibility amounted to a “basic sleight of hand” by the American news media.

In a prime-time talk show on state broadcaster Channel 1, Russia’s best-known ultra-conservative ideologue Aleksandr Dugin said that Ukraine’s leadership and “its puppet masters in the Western intelligence services” had certainly organized the attack.

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

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

U.S. officials said there was no evidence of Ukrainian involvement in the concert hall attack, and Ukrainian officials scoffed at the Russian allegations. Andriy Yusov, a representative of Ukrainian military intelligence, said Mr Putin’s claim that the attackers had fled towards Ukraine and intended to get there with the help of Ukrainian authorities was meaningless.

In recent months, Mr. Putin has appeared more confident than at any time since he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russian forces have regained the initiative on the front lines as Ukraine struggles with a shortage of troops as Western support wanes.

Within Russia, the election – and its predetermined outcome – underscored Mr Putin’s dominance over the country’s politics.

On Saturday near Red Square in Moscow. The area is closed as part of increased security measures following Friday’s terrorist attack.Credit…Shamil Shumatov/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.”

Putin’s early years in power were marked by terrorist attacks, culminating in the 2004 siege of a school in Beslan. He used these violent episodes to justify his restrictions on political freedoms. The most recent fatal terrorist attack in the capital region before Friday was a suicide bombing at a Moscow airport in 2011 that killed 37 people.

However, given the Kremlin’s effectiveness in suppressing dissent and the news media, Mr. Kynev predicted that the political fallout from the concert hall attack would be limited as long as the violence was not repeated.

“To be honest,” he said, “our society has become accustomed to keeping quiet about uncomfortable topics.”

Constant Méheut contributed to reporting.

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