Kremlin critic examines Moscow’s attempts to blame others for Islamic State attack

April 5, 2024

By Ia Meurmishvili

This week, The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that when U.S. officials warned their Kremlin counterparts ahead of an Islamic State terrorist attack near Moscow, they specifically told them that Crocus City Hall was a potential target.

Despite this warning, Russia did not prevent the March 22 attack that killed some 144 people. In the days since, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and other officials have suggested without evidence that Ukraine played a role in the plot. On Wednesday, the head of Russia’s national security council claimed, again without evidence, the United States shares blame because of its links to Kyiv.

For more on the Russian government’s messaging, VOA Georgian service Managing Editor Ia Meurmishvili spoke with prominent Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of the Russian Anti-War Committee, former political prisoner, and former owner of the Yukos company.

Khodorkovsky spoke via Zoom from London. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. You can read the full interview with Khodorkovsky in Russian here.

VOA: Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky, thank you for finding the time to talk to us. What is your assessment of the tragic Crocus City Hall terrorist attack? How do you assess the Kremlin’s first reaction to it?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: The Kremlin’s first reaction was obvious confusion. They did not understand what to do. At first, it was not entirely clear what actually happened. But the situation became clearer quite quickly. I won’t say it’s completely clear, but it’s clearer. It is obvious that the Americans warned the Kremlin both through official channels and publicly that a terrorist attack was being prepared by ISIS, the ISIS groups.

It is obvious that on these days — precisely on the days that the Americans indicated – reconnaissance was taking place. With a high degree of probability, this terrorist attack should have happened earlier, at a concert by Shaman [a Russian singer]. But they got scared, and it happened later. Also, some of the perpetrators have been exposed – that is, the Tajiks who were captured. They were obviously present during this terrorist attack and killed [people].

It’s unclear who ordered and organized the terrorist attack because it was obviously prepared quite professionally. From the moment of entry to the moment of exit either 13 or 18 minutes passed. In general, this is not enough time to enter [the complex], shoot the guards, enter the hall, drive people into the hall and organize such a large-scale fire that it was impossible to put out.

This leads to the idea that there was a second group that no one saw, because it is not entirely clear how this first group, which was in front of hundreds, if not thousands of people, could organize such a huge fire in 18-20 minutes before they ran out, and half an hour before the Ministry of Emergency Situations arrived. The roof, located at a great height, absolutely could not just burn. Who set it on fire, and how, is thus completely unclear.

I would still treat today with great caution the notion that this was organized by Putin. I don’t love Putin, but the confusion that he displayed in the first 24 hours after this terrorist attack is traditional for him: He freezes after something strong, something unpleasant happens. In general, it does not indicate that this was something he assigned to for his own propaganda purposes.

To put it mildly, not everything in this situation is clear. It is, of course, an awful, catastrophic failure for Putin’s special services, and simply a disgrace for Putin personally, because he said [about the American warnings] that “everything is lies, blackmail and provocations.” He said this not just anywhere, but at an FSB board meeting three days before the terrorist attack. By this, de facto, he, as a commander-in-chief, gave the command to the intelligence service to relax on the topic of the warning from the Americans. No one will forget this. For him, this is a big stain on his professional reputation.

VOA: Over the past years, terrorist attacks such as those at the Nord-Ost theater and the tragedy in Beslan have occurred in Russia, but seemingly, the population has not objected to how they were handled. How do you think this attack will affect Russian society?

Khodorkovsky: I don’t think there will be any dramatic changes in the mood of Russian society. You said it absolutely correctly: we walked past the much more terrible terrorist attack in Beslan, which to this day I cannot remember without trembling. We walked past the terrible terrorist attack in Nord-Ost. Moreover, in Beslan it was quite obvious that some of the terrorists escaped. The special services demonstrated a high level of unpreparedness specifically for real terrorist challenges.

They show their “professionalism” in other areas. I would rather pay attention to a very unpleasant trend that has emerged: This is the public demonstration of torture. The fact that special services torture people, the fact that people are tortured in prisons, is well known. Sometimes even videos have leaked. But it has never been done publicly like this, live, with the encouragement of distributing this footage.

Why was this done? Well, one reason is obvious. Putin needs to change the center of public discussion away from his absolutely epic failure, and a personal failure at that. This is why they pick topics that greatly excite the public consciousness — this is torture, this is ending the moratorium on the death penalty, and so on.

But if that were all, it wouldn’t be so bad. To my deep regret, there is a “trivialization,” so to speak, of evil. People are shown these harsh examples, making them ready to accept certain deviations from the law. They are shown that this is possible, this is acceptable. It is certain that if today this is acceptable in relation to extremely unpleasant suspects, then tomorrow it will be used in relation to hundreds and thousands of completely different people.

Unfortunately, this means that Putin is preparing for an increase in repression, and in general, these repressions will not only be in the traditional forms of imprisonment, but also in a general tightening of the situation.

VOA: There are concerns that Putin will use the terrorist attack as a mechanism for a new mobilization. How realistic is this?

Khodorkovsky: They probably will use it to some extent, but this is a third-order problem. Today he still has the opportunity to recruit a sufficient number of people. Rather, he is more constrained by his ability to train people, to provide them with weapons, than by anything else. I don’t think there will be any such massive

conscription of half a million people. Rather, he will call up another 140, 150, or maybe 160 thousand, which will not be so difficult to do within the framework of the spring recruiting. And a certain number will come from prisons and volunteers. This will be enough for him to create the conditions for a summer offensive, given the current state of the front, with the current level of support or, more precisely, “non-support” [by the West] for Ukraine.

To our deepest regret, what is now happening with the supply of weapons, with the supply of ammunition from America – in fact, the only country that can currently provide the necessary volumes of supplies – and from Europe as well… This all leads to the completely obvious and dramatic weakening of Ukraine.

Ukraine does not have enough air defense systems because supplies have stopped. At the front, people die, deprived of the opportunity to even respond. All this will end very sadly if something does not change in the coming months.

First published in VoA