đź”’ Insights into Russia’s terror attack expose geopolitical risks: Marc Champion

In the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack in Russia, critical insights emerge, shedding light on the complexities of our multipolar world. Despite a US warning, Putin dismissed the threat, revealing a dangerous erosion of trust between nations. As geopolitical tensions escalate, Islamist groups remain undeterred by borders, viewing Russia as part of the Western sphere. Meanwhile, Putin’s control over the media allows for unchecked narratives, fostering distrust and conspiracy. Amidst this turmoil, the global order teeters on the brink of irreparable fracture.

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By Marc Champion

Three facts stand out as clear amid the lack of hard information about the perpetrators of Friday’s appalling terrorist attack on Russia, and all three shine a light on dangers inherent in the new multipolar world we now inhabit. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The first is that, before the attack, Vladimir Putin dismissed a US warning that it was coming, both in public and to his top security officers. He called the American intelligence that Islamists were planning an assault on a large Russian venue blackmail, aimed at destabilizing his country — a vague goal he did nothing to explain. There was a time not so long ago when Putin understood that Washington considered Islamist radicalism a shared threat, taken so seriously that it was ring-fenced from other disputes. He would have used the warning, even if he couldn’t prevent the attack. 

Yet so shredded has trust become between Moscow and Washington since Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, if not since his 2014 annexation of Crimea, that he fell victim to paranoia. Had he been able to think rationally, Russia’s president would have known this was a game the US wouldn’t play, because it could only lose. Toward the end of the short address to the nation after Friday night’s attack, Putin said he would work with all “genuinely” concerned nations to fight international terrorism — so perhaps he has recognized his mistake. I very much doubt it.

The second piece of clarity is that while Putin has, remarkably, managed to persuade much of the Global South that his invasion of a former imperial possession somehow makes him a fellow victim of Western colonialism, Islamists are having none of it. They don’t care a hoot about Ukraine, but they also make no distinction between Russian and Western colonialism.

As far as Islamic State or al-Qaeda is concerned, Putin’s military interventions in Syria and Chechnya are no different from America’s in Iraq or Libya. Nor is the presence of a large Russian military base in predominantly Sunni Muslim Tajikistan — the ex-Soviet country that the arrested suspects may have been from — any less offensive to Islamist ideas than the presence of US military bases in the Gulf. Russia is for them a part of the Christian West. It doesn’t belong anywhere on the territory of their imagined Islamic caliphate.

Finally, Putin could confidently hint at Ukrainian responsibility, thus absolving his own lapse of vigilance, because no matter what evidence emerges to the contrary, he knows he will be able to sell whatever story he likes at home — such is the totality of his control over the media, and eradication of organized opposition. Putin has demonstrated this ability repeatedly throughout his war in Ukraine, and it’s deeply worrying. He can now generate domestic popular support for virtually any decision or aggression. Worse, the creeping spread of what one might call populist “authoritocracies” makes that true for a growing number of leaders.

We can’t yet know for sure that Ukraine didn’t facilitate the Moscow attack, because it’s very hard to prove a negative. The only verifiable evidence of Ukrainian involvement that Putin has cited — namely that the killers were arrested while driving in Ukraine’s direction — is weak. It also would imply a near-suicidal stupidity in Kyiv. There was a roughly 100% chance that Putin would blame Ukraine for the attack, and the US, implicated by association, wouldn’t forgive being pulled into something that jeopardizes so core a security interest as counter-terrorism.  

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the atrocity at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall concert venue, and that’s likely true. IS has put out footage of the killers that was taken before the attack, and it matches with the images Russian television showed of the men afterward. The four arrested men were identified as Tajiks, and the US believes the IS branch responsible to be Islamic State-Khorasan, a province of Islamic State’s nonexistent caliphate that would include much of Afghanistan, the northern part of which is ethnic Tajik, as well as Pakistan and Central Asia, including Tajikistan. The Russian security services said they foiled another IS-K attack in Moscow just a month ago.  

That doesn’t, of course, prove that the IS operation didn’t get an assist from Ukraine, but so far that has the smell of a conspiracy theory. The confession by a captive to his Russian guards that an anonymous caller offered him 1 million rubles ($10,850) to conduct the attack would certainly be inconsistent with an IS-directed operation, but was also offered under the definition of duress: on camera, on his knees and at the mercy of armed security officers. There’s no recording of what came before, and so we don’t know what he may have been told to say if he wanted to stay alive. 

The eradication of trust breeds conspiracy theories and also makes them all but impossible to shoot down. So it’s likely Putin will stick with his Ukraine story no matter what. That wasn’t always as attractive or as easy to pull off as it is now. Yes, the US-dominated, globalized world that followed the Soviet collapse of 1991 was hardly safe; it was also deeply flawed and unequal. Yet the trade and economic integration that it relied on placed some basic boundaries — and required a minimum of mutual acceptance among governments that made space for the kind of warning the US gave to Moscow to be believed, even when relations in other areas were poor. That minimal level of confidence also allowed for organizations such as the United Nations and G-20 to function as more than gladiatorial arenas for performative diplomacy. But no more.

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