Propaganda Chatter Post-Terror Attack in Moscow

Written by Matt Wickham, analyst – Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group/UCMC

On March 7th, the US, UK, and several other Western embassies issued a warning notice to their citizens located in Moscow, urging them to avoid crowded places due to an imminent terror attack. However, Russian propaganda largely disregarded this warning, dismissing it as mere scare tactics ahead of the presidential elections. Two weeks later, on Friday, March 22, Moscow saw one of the most deadly terror attacks in its history at Crocus City Hall.

In Search for Escalation Justification

After Putin’s apparent ‘landslide presidential victory’, Ukrainian experts cautioned that this ‘win’ could embolden Putin to escalate the war, giving him the mandate needed to push on further in Ukraine. Indeed, more evidence supporting this concern is seen from the Thursday 20th and Friday 21st of March nationwide missile strikes, with Friday morning’s strike marking the largest yet. Russia employed the most brutal missiles from its arsenal to target the Dnipro Hydroelectric Plant. This is a sure sign that Putin is hell-bent on pursuing a course of escalation.  

However, the terrorist attack in Moscow posed a dilemma for the Kremlin.

Military analyst Oleksiy Kopitko stated, “The Kremlin had two main options on the table. The first step is to blame ISIS for the attack and launch a joint campaign against international terrorism. This is a gift for Putin, as the war in Ukraine is pushed to the background and plunged into a sub-freeze. The second option is to accuse Ukraine of organising an international terrorist attack. This is an escalation, and it is not limited to Ukraine. And not so much against Ukraine, but against the United States. Putin deliberated for half a day before accusing Ukraine of the terrorist act.”

Russian propaganda’s information frenzy post-terror attack, asserting Ukraine is to blame even after ISIS took responsibility, is proof that the Kremlin is trying to find just cause to escalate its operations in Ukraine and perhaps the West.

What cannot be overlooked is the significant security failure that occurred on Russian soil just two weeks after Western agencies issued warnings. This failure lands squarely in Putin’s lap, prompting the Kremlin’s desperate attempt to use all means of its propaganda machine to shift blame onto the West and Ukraine.  

“The West Knew and is to Blame”

Despite the issuance of warnings by Western embassies, the acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation by Russian propaganda only occurred after the March 22 terror attack. Just two weeks prior, these warnings were derided as part of a purported Western effort to interfere with the Russian presidential elections and dissuade Russian citizens from participating in the electoral process. Spokesperson Maria Zakharova leveraged this narrative in numerous interviews to bolster Russia’s image as victorious in conducting “record-breaking” presidential elections. She portrayed the Russian people as resilient in the face of Western intimidation tactics. 

Following the attack, Russian propaganda sought to shift blame onto the West, aiming to create a collective enemy and divert attention from the leadership’s failure just five days after the elections. Andrei Klintsevich, a military observer, alleged complicity on the part of the US and UK, asserting, “Obviously, the US and the UK very well knew everything [that was going to happen]…“This sentiment was echoed by military expert Igor Korotchenko, who questioned, “Washington and London knew everything in advance, at least they had pre-emptive information. […]So did the CIA and/or MI6 warn the Russian side through the appropriate channels?” These assertions not only seek to deflect blame but also raise serious doubts about the transparency of intelligence-sharing mechanisms from Western nations that could have saved Russian lives. 

The Kremlin is attempting to portray the West as the evil player in order to garner more support for Russia’s war on Ukraine. However, it’s rather implausible to believe that Western intelligence services wouldn’t have shared at least pertinent details with their Russian counterparts, even if we are currently at war. Regardless of geopolitical tensions, intelligence sharing is a fundamental aspect of global security, and the West, contrary to propaganda narratives, has no vested interest in international terrorism rearing its ugly head. 

“Don’t Jump to Conclusions. But it’s Ukraine”

Propagandists were very quick to jump on the blaming bandwagon, telling how, “there is no doubt, but this has the West written all over it.” The camps are currently split into two, those who blame the US and the collective West and those who blame Ukraine, more specifically, Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence. This, for propaganda, is an easy target. Budanov has long been operating in the Russian’s minds, working on all forms of intelligence, including psyops. Since day one of this war, he has been portrayed to the Russian people as the terrorist mastermind behind the war and all ‘terror attacks’ on Russia. Although the only terror attacks before March 22 were on Ukrainian soil at the hands of the Russian military. 

What’s more, Korotchenko was quick to confirm, a mere 2 hours hours after the attack that “The perpetrators are most likely a Ukrainian SRG [sabotage group], and the organiser is probably the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry (Kyrylo Budanov). If this is the work of the Ukrainians, such an action could be authorised only and exclusively by President Volodymyr Zelensky.” Here you have a propaganda apparatus calling for investigations, even though they have already decided, without proof, that Ukraine was behind the attack.

Solovievlive, the main source of disseminating disinformation to the most susceptible Russians and those who glorify the Kremlin, hosted a special programme dedicated to the events unfolding in the shopping centre. The fire hadn’t even been extinguished, and there were floods of propagandists taking to the microphone, blaming Ukraine and the West. “100% it was them” they would say, although they themselves were not sure who the “them” specifically is – Ukraine, the West, or both? Guest after guest would issue the same message, “Let’s wait for official confirmation, but we already know who is behind this.” and “We need to destroy those responsible for this. [referring to the West and Ukraine.] I do not care if they have children. We need to destroy them. Those who cause fear in our people on our land must be destroyed,” said one guest. However, soon after the attack, Friday Night was quick to see ISIS take responsibility. But this didn’t coincide with propaganda’s plans. They are committed to using this attack to further their own military escalations. 

“It’s not ISIS”

Margarita Simonyan took to telegram to tell of her absolute confidence that it was Ukraine to blame, telling “It’s not ISIS. It’s just that the perpetrators were chosen so that they could convince the dumb world society that is was ISIS[…] It’s not ISIS. It’s the Ukrainians[…]It’s not ISIS. It’s a well-coordinated team of several others.” Apparently, she is certain of this, writing that the detained terrorists, conveniently en route to Ukraine to escape, were “singing” the truth during interrogations. However, she advised against publishing their confessions as it would “interfere with the investigation”. 

The assertion that the terrorists were planning to escape through Ukraine was reiterated by Putin, who alleged that “the Ukrainian side” had facilitated a route across the border. This narrative aims to foster a sense of collective threat, emphasizing that this enemy is now at their doorstep. Exploiting the grief pervasive among the Russian people, propaganda seeks to emotionally manipulate them into endorsing the notion that Russia warrants the destruction of the Ukrainian state—something it has tried, rather unsuccessfully, for the prior two years.

Moreover, propaganda’s assertion that Ukraine was complicit in aiding the terrorists’ escape only serves Putin’s agenda. Ukraine stands to gain nothing from orchestrating such an attack or facilitating their getaway. It is Russia that is the terrorist state; forming closer ties with Iran would have only given ISIS a motive to attack an ever growing alliance. However, if ISIS wasn’t behind the attack, these events echo chilling parallels to the terrorist acts of 1999 that helped propel Putin to power. Given the Kremlin’s track record and blatant disregard for human life as a means to achieve operational and political success, coupled with the fact that it is looking to exploit any possible event to escalate tensions, it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility that the Kremlin knew of such an attack looming. After all, the West’s warnings couldn’t have been more specific.