Many Russians Buy the Big Lie That Ukraine Was Behind the ISIS Massacre at Moscow

In Putin’s Russia, thought control survives and thrives.

AP/Dmitry Serebryakov
A Russian Rosguardia secures an area while the Crocus City Hall burns on the western edge of Moscow, March 22, 2024. AP/Dmitry Serebryakov

Forty years after 1984, the Big Lie is alive and well in the former Soviet Union. In the two weeks since terrorists killed or wounded almost 800 concertgoers at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall, Russia’s state-controlled television has pumped out the fantasy that Ukraine was behind the attack.

Contrary to this version, the Afghan branch of Islamic State claimed the March 22 massacre — while the four attackers were still fleeing. The next day, while the concert hall was still burning, ISIS released unique details and a video clip that could only have been taken by a gunman. Later, it emerged that America and Iran warned the Kremlin that ISIS was planning a big attack at Moscow. Two weeks before it occurred, Washington even warned that ISIS planned to attack Crocus City. 

No one doubts that ISIS is active in Russia. On March 3, Russian police say they killed six ISIS terrorists in an hours-long shootout in Ingushetia, a Russian Muslim republic on Russia’s southern border. On March 7, Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, announced it had killed two more ISIS terrorists, preventing an ISIS attack on a synagogue near Moscow.

Undeterred by the facts, President Putin started on day one to insinuate that Ukraine was involved. Immediately, political and press heavyweights began pushing the new party line.

It worked. Two weeks after the attack, a Russian public opinion poll reported 50 percent of respondents believe that Ukraine was behind the massacre. Riding this anti-Ukraine fervor, Russia’s defense ministry reported that enlistments spiked, with 16,000 new recruits in 10 days. Preparing for a summer offensive against Ukraine, Russia wants to draft as many as 300,000 by June.

“After the terrible events in Moscow, I don’t want to stand aside,” one new recruit, Oleg Ternov, says in a Russian defense ministry video. “I don’t want my own native town to see a tragedy like that.” The ministry narrator says: “Most candidates indicated the desire to avenge those killed in the tragedy that occurred on March 22, 2024, in the Moscow region as the main motive for concluding a contract” with the army.

Russian anger is driven by the death toll, the highest for a terrorist act since Chechen rebels took over a rural school in 1984. In the Moscow attack, 145 were killed and 550 were injured. Today, 95 are missing. Because three fire exits were locked and the sprinklers did not work, dozens of concertgoers were killed by smoke inhalation or by the collapse of the concert hall roof.

The 6,200-seat concert hall was sold out that night. However, this violation of fire safety rules, the lack of security, and the clear link to Islamic radicals have been downplayed in favor of a narrative designed to pump up popular support for Russia’s war against Ukraine.

In 1949, George Orwell drew on Stalinism and Nazism to write about the power of repetition of a lie. In “1984,” he warned: “If all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

The year 1984 has come and gone, but in 2024 Russia, thought control survives and thrives. In the Crocus City case, the four suspected attackers and the seven men arrested as enablers are all from Central Asia, largely from Tajikistan. Undeterred by facts, the blame-Ukraine chorus has grown shriller, expanding to include Washington and the West.

One Russian lawmaker, Alexander Yakubovsky, claimed: “The Nazi terrorist regime of Ukraine is behind this terrorist attack, possibly using radical Islamists. But without Western intelligence services it is impossible to pull this off.” 

In a telephone call Wednesday, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, told his French counterpart, Sébastien Lecornu: “The Kyiv regime does nothing without approval of its Western handlers. … We hope that the French special services weren’t involved in it.” 

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, called the Russian’s charges “baroque” and  “ridiculous.” “It makes no sense and doesn’t fit with reality,” he said, to say that France “could be behind it and that the Ukrainians are behind it. … But it’s a manipulation of information, which is part of Russia’s arsenal of warfare today.”

Pushing the Big Lie to a regional security conference that included envoys from China, India, and Iran, the Russian Security Council secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, said Wednesday: “They are trying to impose on us that the terrorist act was committed not by the Kyiv regime, but by supporters of radical Islamic ideology, perhaps members of the Afghan branch of IS.” 

Speaking at a meeting in Kazakhstan of the nine-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization, he continued: “However, it is much more important to quickly establish who is the customer and sponsor of this monstrous crime. Its traces led to the Ukrainian special services. But everyone knows that the Kyiv regime is not independent and is completely controlled by the United States.”

Mr. Patrushev followed up by charging that Ukraine’s embassy in Tajikistan was recruiting fighters. Yesterday, Tajikistan’s foreign ministry rejected this charge as having “no basis.” The poorest of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Tajikistan has been the target of ISIS recruiting from its southern neighbor, Afghanistan. ISIS runs Tajik-language Telegram channels and TikTok accounts.

The director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov, said it was “known” that Ukraine had trained militants in the Middle East and that Western intelligence services and Ukraine needed the attack to “sow panic” in Russia. He told Russian reporters: “We believe that radical Islamists prepared the action, while Western special services assisted it and Ukrainian special services had a direct part in it.”

In response, the British foreign secretary, David Cameron, posted on X: “Russia’s claims about the West and Ukraine on the Crocus City Hall attack are utter nonsense.” American officials have publicly said ISIS “bears sole responsibility.” Ukrainian officials deny any link to the attack.

Russia’s two intelligence directors, both aged 72, started their careers, along with Mr. Putin, in the Soviet-era KGB. Two years ago, both men encouraged Mr. Putin to invade Ukraine, assuring him that the “special military operation” would be short. Neither man has suffered sanctions for offering faulty intelligence. In Mr. Putin’s inner Kremlin circle, loyalty trumps competence.

So far, the only “link” to Ukraine has been the arrest of the four suspects on a main highway leading west, toward Ukraine, from Moscow. Mr. Putin charged that a “Ukrainian window” was to open for the fleeing men. This charge was publicly undermined by Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko. He said the suspects took the same highway, heading toward Belarus, then turned around when they spotted roadblocks.

In different times, the Kremlin might channel public anger through a xenophobic pogrom. But with Russia’s economy thrown into high gear to feed the military machine, unemployment has fallen to 2.8 percent, a post-Communist low. Short of millions of workers, Russia cannot afford to close its doors to workers from the Muslim south. 

On Thursday, Mr. Putin said on national TV: “We have every reason to believe that the main goal of those who ordered the bloody, awful terrorist act in Moscow was to damage our unity. … Russia cannot be the target of terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists. We are a country that demonstrates a unique example of interfaith harmony and unity, of inter-religious and inter-ethnic unity.”

A Yale history professor, Timothy Snyder, writes: “If Ukraine and the West are guilty, then Russian security services do not have to explain why they failed to stop Islamic terrorists from killing so many Russians, because Islamic terror vanishes from the story.” He concludes: “Putin’s big lie about Ukraine is growing whiskers.”

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use