Blame War: The Aftermath of the Crocus City Hall Attack

Anton Khimiak, analyst HWAG/UCMC

The shooting at the Moscow shopping and performance venue, Crocus City Hall, was Russia’s largest terrorist attack in a decade, killing over 130 people and injuring many more. According to eyewitness videos, armed men shot civilians at random, set fire to the building, and fled the scene unhindered. The terrorist attack became a high-profile media event as the Kremlin began to weave conspiracy theories around it while issuing unfounded accusations about Ukraine.  


On March 7 and 8, 2024, the embassies of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, South Korea, and several other countries urged their citizens to avoid congested areas or planning trips to Russia due to the high risk of terrorist attacks. Russian propaganda immediately responded to these statements, claiming that these publications were intended to undermine the situation within the Russian Federation on the eve of the presidential election.

The most quoted were the remarks made by the “newly elected president” Putin at a Federal Security Service board meeting on March 19 (three days before the attack): At one time, the West actively used all sorts of cross-border radical terrorist groups to its advantage, including encouraging their aggression against Russia[…]It is worth noting the recent provocative statements made by a number of official Western structures regarding the possibility of terrorist attacks in Russia. Everything looks like outright blackmail.

Subsequently, following the terrorist attack, suspicions were cast on the Russian authorities, as the Putin regime had previously staged terrorist attacks in its early days. Many inconsistencies contribute to such considerations in the case of the Moscow shooting, including security forces’ slow response, the attackers’ unobstructed escape from the scene of the attack, and the variety of versions of events.

In 1999, four residential buildings in Buinaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk were destroyed by explosions in a single month. According to the official report, 307 people died. The version that Russian special services, primarily the FSB, were involved in the attacks has grown in popularity among the Russian opposition and the international community (more here).

To justify its inaction and divert suspicion away from itself, Russian propaganda began broadcasting multiple versions of events. In the context of terrorist attack warnings, Russian media spread the notion that the US leadership was involved in the attacks. For example, propagandist Solovyov distributed a New York Times article about the events at Crocus City Hall, emphasizing the episodes that benefited Russia. The US intelligence services did not pass Russia all of the information they had about the threat of a terrorist attack in Crocus City Hall for fear of revealing their sources – this aspect of The New York Times’ version of events was particularly “liked” by Russian propagandists.

Ukrainian and Western perspectives

Immediately after the first evidence of a terrorist attack in the Moscow region surfaced, Ukrainian authorities emphasized their lack of involvement. Mykhailo Podolyak, Advisor to the Head of the President’s Office of Ukraine, stated:Ukraine has never used terrorist methods. It’s always senseless… There is no doubt that the events in the Moscow region will contribute to a significant increase in military propaganda and escalation of the war.”

The Ukrainian authorities’ reaction is understandable, given that one of the primary goals of Russian propaganda is to discredit Ukraine in the international arena. Finally, this is what happened. Despite the information noise caused by the terrorist attack, Russia attempted to blame Ukraine at every stage.

It is important to recall a recent speech by Ukraine’s Chief of Defence Intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, who stated that Russia knew exactly about the terrorist attack before the warnings from Western countries: Why did they allow this to happen? There are a few choices. The first is, as is customary, a struggle among the ’towers’ to remove a few high-ranking officials. Another possibility is that they underestimated the scope of what would happen. They expected it to be more localized and wanted to blame Ukraine for everything.

After a while, the Islamic State claimed full responsibility for the attack, but Russia continued to invent versions that suited it on the fly. At the same time, the West, particularly the United States, confirmed that there was no doubt about the veracity of ISIS’ claims. An important fact is the numerous statements about the Ukrainian side’s lack of involvement in the events.

Dissociative disorder in Russian Society

Russian propaganda outlets continue to spread different versions of the story in an attempt to discredit Ukraine. From the start, Russia attempted to spread a fake about a mined truck in a concert hall parking lot with allegedly old-style Ukrainian license plates. Later, it was discovered that the license plates were actually Belarusian.

When the terrorists were apprehended in the Bryansk region, most Kremlin propagandists and official sources began discussing a “prepared window of transition” to Ukrainian territory. At the same time, Belarusian dictator Lukashenko, who often supports Moscow’s propaganda efforts (previously analsyed by UCMC here), released contradictory information. 

According to Lukashenko, the terrorists initially intended to enter Belarusian territory, but due to increased security measures along the Belarusian-Russian border, they decided to cross into Ukraine. Thus, Putin’s lap dog’s (Lukasenko) remarks contradict the Russian government’s official version.

After all, on March 28, 2024, the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee stated that it had discovered evidence that “funds for the terrorist act were transferred from the territory of Ukraine to the terrorist accounts.” This news was shared by all Russian propaganda telegram channels. The majority of them are also attempting to instill complete trust in their readers: Now it all depends on how the Russians use this information and whether they will raise the stakes in the war even more or use it only to increase the anti-rating of Ukraine and Zelensky personally at the international level, thereby reducing Kyiv’s funding.

It is likely that such “indisputable evidence and incredible facts” will continue to appear, as they are very similar to the traditional “Yarosh business card.” Furthermore, Kremlin propagandists will continue to fill in the gaps in the story about the Russian security forces’ negligence that enabled the terrorist attack, as well as mobilize the population to counter the threats.

How has this impacted Russia?

A terrorist attack, regardless of origin, sets off a chain reaction of violence, and the situation in Russia is currently deteriorating in this regard. On the one hand, the Russian authorities are attempting to divert violence away from civilians (by amending migration and labor laws), while simultaneously increasing tension.

Some well-known Russian propagandists have systematically criticized the Russian government for its “wrong migration and demographic” policy. These same propagandists blame the terrorist attacks on Russia’s lax restrictions on Central Asian immigrants.

An excellent example is the author of the Pozdnyakov 3.0 channel’s telegrams, who, in the context of a Yakut woman being harassed by nationalist youths in the Moscow subway, wrote: “Keep in mind that there are many power groups in the Russian Federation. The one who is responsible for Russia’s genocide and the destruction of the Russian nation through Islamization and the influx of migrants may well release such people with the assistance of its tame cops in order to specifically discredit the right.”

Immediately after the terrorists were apprehended, many Russian cities began reporting evidence of security forces’ violence against the “non-Russian population.” There were also reports of massive inspection raids across the country targeting migrant workers in Russian companies.

The aftermath of the recent terrorist attack, combined with Russian propaganda accusations against Ukraine, highlights the complexities of countering Russian propaganda. Russia will continue to blame Ukraine in the information sector and attempt to discredit it in the international arena.

However, rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Russia, as well as disagreements over how to combat terrorism, are shaking the country’s social structure. As a result, there is a risk that violence in Russia will escalate.

Therefore, the Russian authorities will attempt to direct the social aggression sparked by the terrorist attack toward their geopolitical adversaries, Ukraine and Western countries, while ignoring the role of the true perpetrators and customers, radical Islamists.