Seeking to limit criticism, Putin refuses to blame IS

Russian President Vladimir Putin insinuated that Ukraine was linked (Mikhail METZEL)
Russian President Vladimir Putin insinuated that Ukraine was linked (Mikhail METZEL)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is refusing to blame the Islamic State (IS) for the Moscow attack despite a claim by the extremist group, instead insinuating a link to Ukraine in a possible bid to limit the responsibility of the Russian security services.

IS claimed the attack Friday evening on the Crocus City Hall concert venue on the outskirts of Moscow that left at least 137 people dead, with Western governments also saying the extremist group appeared to be responsible.

In his latest comments on the attack Monday, Putin acknowledged that "radical Islamists" had carried out the attack but made a link with Ukraine, over two years into Moscow's invasion of its neighbour.

"The US... is trying to convince its satellites that there is not a Kyiv trace in the act of terror and that members of ISIS carried out the attack," Putin told a security meeting.

"We know who carried out the attack. We want to know who the mastermind was," said Putin, repeating the allegation that the perpetrators tried to flee to Ukraine after the attack.

Ukraine has already vehemently denied any involvement in the attack, with President Volodymyr Zelensky saying Putin was always seeking to blame "someone else".

French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday warned Moscow against any "exploitation" of the attack, saying it would be "cynical and counterproductive for Russia to use this context to try and turn it against Ukraine".

He said it was a branch of Islamic State that "planned the attack and carried it out", adding this outfit had also plotted attacks in France.

In early March the US had warned Russia of a risk of an attack, a message Moscow appears to have batted away.

- 'Responsible for everything' -

"There is an exploitation (of the attack) because Vladimir Putin is obsessed with Ukraine," said Sylvie Bermann, former ambassador of France to Russia. "It is in his logic of the war in Ukraine and the Ukrainians are responsible for everything," she told AFP.

The attack came as Russia scents it has the upper hand on the battlefield over two years into the war but with the Kremlin still wary of ordering a new military mobilisation.

Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik consultancy, described Putin's link to Ukraine as "cautious", arguing that if there had been any evidence of such a role reactions would have been even more explicit.

"The IS is testing a new tactic that involves newcomers who had not been flagged as extremists in police databases and that implies a much shorter period of preparation," she told AFP.

But many commentators on pro-Kremlin media were in no doubt where to lay the blame.

"We are not talking about ISIS here. It was the khokhly," said the editor-in-chief of the RT channel Margarita Simonyan, using a term used pejoratively in Russia to denote Ukrainians.

Mass-circulation newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda even quoted one commentator as blaming the "British special services and the Americans and Ukrainians" for the attack.

After Putin's latest comments, Stanovaya wrote on Telegram that it appeared Putin was carefully using the conditional in his language and "does not yet have evidence of the involvement of either the US or Ukraine."

"But he is convinced they would benefit from such an act of terror".

- 'Security lapses' -

Meanwhile, the failure to avert the attack -- in particular after possible intelligence from Moscow's adversary the US -- could be seen in some quarters as a major failure for the Russian security services.

Ex-agent Putin has sought to portray the KGB successor the Federal Security Service (FSB), which he himself used to head, as all powerful and able to protect Russians from threats to their homeland.

After the hostage massacre at a Moscow theatre showing the Nord-Ost musical in 2002 and the Beslan school siege in 2004, the Crocus City Hall is the latest atrocity claimed by jihadists under Putin that has put the role of security forces under the microscope.

While jihadists carried out a string of previous attacks, Putin will be mindful of the risk of disrupting Russia's delicate society which includes more than 20 million Muslims.

Admitting that the attack was committed by IS would be to acknowledge that the image of a secure and stable Russia "where the state is omnipotent and the all-powerful security services control everything is a myth," said Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, Russia specialist at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

She said that Putin's priority is to divert attention from "security lapses" and rally "all those who are still hesitating on the domestic scene" to the need to fight the West and Ukraine.