Putin Is Soft on Terrorism

While St. Petersburg mourns the dead, Russia’s president is calling for a war against terrorists. Don’t fall for it.


On Monday afternoon, a bomb exploded in a St. Petersburg subway train, killing at least 14 people and injuring dozens more. The official response from the Russian government was initially muddled. The prosecutor-general seemed to confirm soon afterward that it was a terrorist attack, a label echoed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, but President Vladimir Putin, also in St. Petersburg to meet with visiting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, cautioned later that day that the motives were not yet known. The attack is now being investigated as an act of terrorism, though Russia has yet to offer confirmation.

For the Kremlin’s state media, however, the battle drill was clear. Nonstop coverage of the “terrorist attack” was launched immediately, replete with photos of victims and an alleged attacker — later revealed not to be the perpetrator but a witness — as well as of a second device that was allegedly found and defused. Putin, too, despite his earlier caution, issued a statement on the condolence call from U.S. President Donald Trump, saying the two leaders agreed that “terrorism is an evil that must be fought jointly.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added an appeal for more international cooperation to combat terror. With Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expected to visit Moscow in the next few weeks, and with the Russian government still trying to distract from recent anti-corruption protests across the country, it is certainly no surprise to see the state media machine (and the government officials that fuel it) pivoting to the importance of the United States and Russia cooperating to fight terrorism — and the need for heightened security at a time of potential unrest. The Duma has already proposed banning political demonstrations “for awhile” because of the attack.

Russia’s narrative opportunism will undoubtedly spark fresh rumors, among Russians and foreigners alike, that the attacks may have been staged. The rumors have been hard for the Kremlin to dodge since respected investigative journalists compiled substantial evidence that the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings were conducted by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in order to create a pretext for the second Chechen war that landed Putin in the presidency.

But the speculation about “false flag” operations distracts from the reality of the Kremlin’s current positions on terrorist organizations and terror attacks. And this reality is chilling enough without any embellishment.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the Kremlin has endeavored to use the mutual desire to fight terrorism as a foundation for restored relations with Washington. This was the entreaty to the George W. Bush administration, the trap for the Barack Obama administration, and now the line of effort pursued with a Trump administration amenable to playing along with the idea that “terrorism” is the top threat to America, rather than Russia. Across the Middle East, Russia is expanding its military and diplomatic footprint, calling for “stability,” which tends to mean the preservation of autocratic regimes, as a means of countering terror.

All these words stand in stark contrast to Russian actions. Moscow’s escalating intervention in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has fueled a crisis that has destabilized the region. It has also seen the Kremlin partnering with a number of terrorist organizations. In Syria, for example — where it has been widely noted that the Kremlin’s main goal is to preserve Assad rather than to fight the Islamic State — Russia has used Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force in their supposed fight against the Islamic State, with both groups acting as paramilitary forces for ground operations to take territory or leading local militias.

It has also been documented that, in addition to other forms of aid given to the Islamic State by Russia and Assad — which include Assad’s purchases of oil from the Islamic State, allegations of intelligence sharing with Islamic State forces, and the fortuitous resupply of arms and ammunition from Russian stocks — the FSB has helped recruit fighters for the Islamic State and facilitated the movement of jihadis to Syria. Although some have said this was a “local initiative” to clean up the North Caucasus before the Sochi Olympics, there is reporting that this recruitment was happening via Russian assets across Europe as well.

This early support yielded clear results for the Kremlin. It is hard to ignore that the first group of Russian-speaking jihadis showed up in Syria at exactly the right time to help turn the war away from Assad and toward Iraq. They did so with the intelligence to act quickly and in alignment with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other Sunni Islamic State leaders, many of whom were KGB-trained (an artifact from the Kremlin’s long-term partnership with the Baath Party in Syria and Iraq). The arrival of the Islamic State was a key part of Russia’s narrative that there were no moderate rebels to support against Assad.

There is evidence that Russia has been working with the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well. The Russians believe that empowering the Taliban, in particular with legitimacy and intelligence sharing, will take space away from the expansion of the Islamic State. However, this has also meant working against American interests as U.S. troops continue to fight the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State alike.

The message from the Kremlin has become increasingly clear: If you want to be a terrorist, you have to be our terrorist (and you have to be outside of Russian territory).

The Kremlin has weaponized migration. It has weaponized information and built complex information architecture inside Western social and other media. It uses that information architecture to weaponize data in order to target discourse meant to isolate, influence, and recruit key demographics to causes and narratives that help the Kremlin achieve its objectives. Kremlin ideologues have described democracy and terrorism as similar forms of extremism. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that they have cultivated radicalization as another tool of hybrid warfare.

This is why, even in the wake of tragedy, calls for greater cooperation on terrorism from the Kremlin sound hollow. There is no simple answer to how America can fight terrorism alongside a nation that views terrorist groups as just another tool in hybrid or conventional warfare alike. While the Kremlin has changed its nuclear doctrine to view nuclear weapons as “just another conventional weapon,” its consistent capture of terrorist elements exposes its willingness to use any means necessary in the war against the West.

This array of tools has been cultivated because it gives Putin’s Russia greater control in determining and negotiating the outcomes they want. Put differently, the Kremlin is comfortable using its “bad actor” status to get better deals for its far-weaker nation. As consistently noted in the recent Senate hearings on Russia, the Russians are not “ten feet tall.” But until we are willing to see the full range of tools and tactics they are willing to use against us — and how they use them, in ways often unthinkable to us, to force the hand of their opponents — we aren’t entering negotiations on fair footing or with clear eyes.

As concerns about a renewed terrorist threat echo through Russian media, we should be cautious — but not cynical — in watching how a new narrative on terrorism is used by the Kremlin.

The Trump administration should resist the impulse to make terrorism the top priority or a key area of bilateral outreach to Russia. One-on-one, the Kremlin knows how to use its unconventional tools to keep opponents off-guard and dominate negotiations. There tend to be surprises once you get to the table — often in the form of crises that only Russia and its unconventional tactics can solve. But it is far harder to get away with this in a multilateral format or with a well-informed opponent. Within the framework of a strong NATO alliance, for example, Russian aggression can be contained and balanced, and the Kremlin is always in a position of comparative weakness when their tricks and storytelling are seen for what they are.

Monday’s attack was a tragedy for the victims. But there is no excuse to allow Putin to evade serious questions about Russia’s partnerships with terrorist organizations abroad — partnerships that expose its backing of anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-NATO sentiment in armed abundance. As with many things, the Kremlin’s narrative about fighting terror looks flawless on Russian television. But Americans must understand the reality behind this fiction, or risk getting blamed for the Kremlin’s crimes.

Photo credit: DMITRI LOVETSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Molly K. McKew (@MollyMcKew) advises governments and political parties on foreign policy, strategic communications, and information warfare. She was an advisor to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government from 2009-2013, and to former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014-2015.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola