Egmont Institute logo

Stalin’s Shadow: Putin’s Response to the Moscow Terrorist Atrocity

Post thumbnail print


The reprehensible and abhorrent act of terrorists targeting innocent civilians deserves condemnation wherever it occurs in the world. This condemnation extends to the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall in Moscow on March 22nd, which resulted in the tragic loss of 144 lives and left over 500 wounded.


Stalin’s Shadow: Putin’s Response to the Moscow Terrorist Atrocity

The reprehensible and abhorrent act of terrorists targeting innocent civilians deserves condemnation wherever it occurs in the world. This condemnation extends to the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall in Moscow on March 22nd, which resulted in the tragic loss of 144 lives and left over 500 wounded. Despite the ongoing war in Ukraine and strained relations with NATO, human dignity – a core value of the Western world – demands compassion for those Russian citizens affected and suffering from this senseless act of terrorism. Even in times of war, acts of civility, characterized by poise, resilience, and dignity – what Ernest Hemingway famously called ‘grace under pressure’ – must prevail. The alternative is absolute war and total moral decay.

In this context, it’s essential to consider the American decision to share information about an imminent terrorist threat with their Russian counterparts. Despite the adversarial stance of the Russian government, Russian authorities were informed about an imminent Islamist terror threat as early as March 7th. Large gatherings, including concerts, were considered high potential targets. This was confirmed by Adreinne Watson, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council, who justified this practice based on the principle of ‘the duty to warn’. This US policy is particularly relevant in the context of counterterrorism efforts, especially after 9/11.

The sharing of intelligence should not be perceived as an act of altruism; rather, it is an expression of mutual interest. An open, two-way communication channel is indeed in the mutual interest for both parties concerning anti-terrorism operations. For instance, in March 2011, the Russian security service (FSB) cabled the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two Chechen brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013. Despite this available information, the terrorist attack could not be prevented by the American security apparatus.

The question about the ‘duty to warn’ policy is not about the prevention of the terrorist act itself but the change in the Kremlin’s attitude towards this policy, leading to the erosion of one of the last lines of communication between Moscow and Washington. Indeed, the shared US information was received with no action, besides mockery and dismissal. Putin dismissed the US warning as a ruse and a form of blackmail, another attempt to destabilize and intimidate Russian society. Three days before the four Tajik men entered the concert hall, on March 19th, Putin reiterated his stance to the FSB high command.

This scene bears resemblance to a moment in July 1941, five days before Nazi Germany initiated Operation Barbarossa, when Stalin disregarded an NKGB report containing intelligence from a source within Hermann Göring’s air ministry. Known for his habit of inscribing uncensored thoughts in the margins of reports, Stalin wrote, “Comrade Merkulov [the people’s commissar for state security], you can send your ‘source’ from the headquarters of German aviation to his fucking mother. This is not a ‘source’ but a disinformant.” The ensuing war resulted in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens. Realizing he made a huge miscalculation by ignoring available intelligence, Stalin remained silent for a long time, seemingly needing to recover from the shock. Similarly, Putin also took an unusually long time, namely 19 hours, before addressing the Russian people regarding the terrorist attack. Until now, he hasn’t visited the crime scene either.

Historians attribute Stalin’s miscalculation to his unchecked power position in the Kremlin and his absolute control over all decisions concerning both foreign and domestic affairs of the USSR. This isolated him within his own mental world, consumed by obsessions and fears that often deviated from reality. Similarly, one could argue the same for Putin within their respective historical contexts. Putin’s unchecked authority was reaffirmed by the presidential elections held the weekend before the terrorist attack. Obsessed with the imaginary Western threat that he had cultivated over the years, Putin disregarded the US warning and other indications of a real Islamist threat in Russia. He viewed the US action as a false flag operation, a belief reinforced by his confidants and advisors, including Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council, and Alexander Bortnikov, Director of the FSB. Instead of addressing Russia’s real threats, Putin prioritized the war effort in Ukraine, the perceived threat from NATO, and the repression of citizens who opposed his war against Ukraine. Putin’s entrenched power position has shaped his worldview, leading to biases that extend beyond the Moscow terrorist attack and affect us all.

Observing the follow-up of the Moscow attack, one may remark three more things. First, whatever the truth behind the terrorist attack, Moscow will transform this security failure into an asset. It will be used to mobilize Russian society to support the war efforts against Ukraine (and the West). Putin, Bortnikov, and Patrushev claim to have many indications that Ukraine, along with the UK and USA, are responsible for the attack claimed by the Islamic State group ISIS-K. This message is propagated by Russian state television and must be considered as a multiplier in the Russian offensive announced in the early Summer. According to OpenMinds, an Anglo-Ukrainian online pollster, 50% of the respondents blamed the Ukrainian leadership and 6% the “Collective West,” while only about 27% attributed the attack to ISIS. Both Ukraine and the Collective West are thus warned.

Secondly, the manner in which Russia presented the four Tajik suspects in court resembled a grotesque display of violence, akin to a pornographic spectacle: explicit, exaggerated, objectifying, devoid of any emotional connection, and shockingly relentless. Just when you think you’ve witnessed everything, you’re still taken aback. If there were any lingering illusions, this serves as the ultimate testament to the absence of rule of law in Russia and marks a disturbing new phase of societal brutalization, potentially fueled by the conflict in Ukraine. The Russian authorities no longer attempt to veil their brutal and inhumane treatment of crime suspects. This serves as a stark warning to the Russian opposition.

Lastly, Russian authorities are poised to exploit the terrorist attack to fuel their prejudices against individuals from the Caucasus and Central Asian regions, derogatorily referred to as ‘chornye’ in slang. In Saint Petersburg, for example, authorities are leveraging the pretext of the terrorist incident to initiate the expulsion of individuals with ties to these regions. This discriminatory action serves as a warning to the approximately 600,000 Tajik nationals currently employed in Russia.

What began as a genuine tragedy in Moscow will likely be manipulated by the Kremlin to fuel their pursuit of goals, primarily aimed at winning the war against Ukraine. Consequently, the flowers laid in remembrance of those lost at Crocus City Hall will soon be immortalized in the form of a war memorial, honoring the soldiers who perished in Eastern Ukraine. Stalin’s shadow looms large over modern-day Russia.



David E. Murphy, What Stalin Knew, The Enigma of Barbarossa, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Anastasia Stognei, “Russians back Vladimir Putin in blaming Ukraine for concert hall terror attack”, Financial Times, 31 March 2024, (Russians back Vladimir Putin in blaming Ukraine for concert hall terror attack (

(Photo credit:  Wikimedia Commons)