How will the Moscow concert hall attack affect Putin?

On Friday, armed men stormed the Crocus Concert Hall outside Moscow, killing at least 137 people and injuring more than 100. A day later, President Vladimir Putin addressed the nation, promising to “identify and punish everyone who stands behind the terrorists who perpetrated this atrocity”.

Some observers may see this moment as history coming full circle. Once again Russia is in the midst of a bloody war and facing terrorist attacks and once again Putin is in charge.

The Russian president came to power in 2000 amid war in Chechnya and in the wake of bombing attacks in Moscow. His promise as a young and energetic leader was to bring stability and security to the country. And he did.

Putin managed to put an end to the Second Chechen War with a combination of brutal military force and political manoeuvring. He managed to split the Chechen forces by putting their religious leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of the current ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, in charge of the republic. As the Chechen rebellion was suppressed, terrorist activity also dwindled. The last major terror attack in Russia took place in 2011.

His success in the Russian “war on terror” has been one of the major achievements of Putin’s rule and one of the main reasons for his political longevity. He is being widely credited for bringing security and a semblance of order to Russia after the turbulent decade that followed the collapse of the USSR.

Today, 30 years later, the threat that Russians hoped they would never face again is back, causing anxiety and demoralising society. A much older Putin is making the same promise amid a crisis that at least some Russians blame on him. Will he be believed?

The attack on the Crocus Concert Hall, which the ISIL (ISIS) affiliate Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) has claimed responsibility for, comes against the backdrop of Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, within hours of the tragedy, Putin and his security bodies were already linking it to Ukraine.

Their claims derived from the fact that four of the suspects, who had made it out of the burning venue by blending into the fleeing crowd, were detained about 140km (90 miles) from the Ukrainian border. In his address to the nation, Putin claimed that they had been offered an “open window” at the border, supposedly by Ukraine’s security services.

Ukraine denied any involvement in the attack. United States officials were adamant that it was carried out by ISKP and Ukraine had nothing to do with it. The US had indeed warned about the possibility of an attack in Moscow, citing its own intelligence, which it said it had shared with the Russians.

Pro-Kremlin commentators and media who have pushed the theory of the Ukrainian connection have pointed to suspected Ukrainian involvement in the bombing attacks that killed prominent pro-war blogger Maksim Fomin, better known as Vladlen Tatarsky, as well as Daria Dugina, the daughter of the far-right ideologist Aleksandr Dugin. Another bombing destroyed a section of the bridge that connects Russia to occupied Crimea.

A few pro-Kremlin commentators like the war-monitoring collective Rybar have also gone as far as pointing a finger at the US and claiming that it supports ISKP in Afghanistan to undermine the Taliban.

Pro-Ukrainian commentators, on the other hand, have been quick to revive a longstanding theory suggesting that Putin could have staged a bombing in Moscow in 1999 to seize power. The Crocus attack, they claimed, was another false flag operation staged by his regime.

The suspects arrested by the Russian security services appear to be ordinary Tajik migrants, like the 1.3 million Tajiks working in Russia. Russian independent media have confirmed that photos of the arrested men match those in the numerous visuals of the attackers in the concert hall.

One of them said he was recruited by an aide to a Muslim preacher and offered about 5,000 euros ($5,420) for the attack. The testimonies were obtained through torture that Russian security services weren’t shy of circulating online; suspects were electrocuted, one had his ear cut off.

No matter who recruited them to carry out the attack, its aim was to demoralise the Russian population.

So will Russians blame Putin for failing to avert the tragedy? Collective psychology is notoriously unpredictable. Some may, but it is unlikely that anything would come of it.

Even without this attack, it has been clear to the Russian population that the period of stability, security and economic growth that Putin has been lauded for is long over. War is literally at the door with Ukrainian forces conducting incursions into Russian territory, sending drones to strike oil refineries and destroying Russian battleships in the Black Sea.

The thinking behind the idea of bringing war into Russian territory – aired by many in Ukrainian security circles since 2014 – assumes that instability and the lack of security would somehow shake Putin’s regime and eventually lead to its downfall. But this idea has proved irrational and delusional over and over again.

Unlike Ukraine, which has the backing of the West behind it, Russians don’t have an alternative guarantor of security they could swap Putin for, even at their own peril – the way Ukrainians did it in the last decade. No matter what they think about Putin, they are existentially dependent on him in the situation that most of them see, like it or not, as a proxy war the West is waging against Russia rather than Russia’s own aggression against neighbouring countries.

Their current security arrangement is a trap with no other option but to sit tight and hope that a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine will be found and life will return to normal.

The way things are going on the front lines in Ukraine at the moment, this hope is far more grounded in reality than a nebulous better future they could achieve by attempting to topple Putin, which in current conditions would most likely precipitate a civil war. There is doom, gloom and a firm determination to sit it out until the age of troubles is over one way or another.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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