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Українською читайте тут.

Almost a day after the terrorist attack in "Crocus City Hall" in Moscow, Vladimir Putin addressed Russians on television. During the short speech, he used the word "terrorists" or its derivatives seven times. Rhetorically linking the deaths of almost 140 people to Ukraine and calling this event "not just a cynically planned terrorist attack, but an organized mass murder of peaceful, defenseless people", Putin returned to a topic in which he feels very comfortable the fight against terrorism. On the Kremlin's official website, the phrase "fight against terrorism" can be found in 366 publications over different years.

Putin's entourage continues to insist that Ukraine may be involved in the terrorist attack in Crocus, or it can disagree with it or search for signs of the involvement of Western special services or, in general, an "Israeli trace", as some leading propagandists (Margarita Simonyan, Alexandr Dugin) do. Yet, the authorities in the Kremlin do not always use harsh rhetoric against organizations and groups recognized as terrorists in most civilized countries of the world. Depending on how it corresponds to the situational or strategic interests of Moscow, "good" or "bad", "our" (us) or "other" (them) terrorists appear on the radar.

Chechnya: from "rubbing out in the toilets" to buying the loyalty of the entire region

Vladimir Putin came to power when Russia had lost the First Chechen War, and the second [war] had just begun. Commenting on the fight against terrorism during his prime ministership in 1999, he used a vulgarism in a phrase that would follow him for many years: "We will pursue terrorists everywhere. If we catch them at the airport, excuse me, even if we catch them in the toilet, we'll rub them out in that toilet, eventually. It is a done deal."

In reality, Russia used the usual for empires "divide and rule" tactics. Suffering heavy losses in both Chechen wars and winning only through scorched earth tactics, Russia had to change its approach. Some of the fighters for Ichkeria’s independence (a separatist region, in Russia’s terminology) were physically destroyed, for example, Dzhokhar Dudayev. The other [part of the fighters] was co-opted into power and placed at the head of the region as the chief mufti, and later the head of the administration and president of Chechnya, Akhmat Kadyrov and his son Ramzan (head of the region from 2007 to the present day). However, a decade later, Chechnya, like neighboring subjects of Russia in the North Caucasus, remains a deeply subsidized region. According to Russian economist and sociologist Natalia Zubarevich, in various years, the federal budget subsidized Chechnya at 82-87%. The region has considerable debt, a significant level of failed payments, and does not generate its own income (except for the oil extraction industry). According to Kadyrov himself, as spoken in 2022, already after the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, "Chechnya will not last a month without the support of Russia." This caused discussions inside and outside the country that Russia seems to be "buying the loyalty" of Ichkeria and quenching its desire for independence for a lot of money.

How often does Putin use the word "terrorism"

German journalists from the Dekoder organization examined more than 10,000 publications on the Kremlin's website to find out how often and which terms appeared in the speeches of Russian presidents Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev over the past 20 years. During his first term as president from 2000 to 2004, Putin used words and phrases that included references to Chechnya, Ukraine, and terrorism almost at the same level (see infographic above). However, much later, after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the partial occupation of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, he used the word "terrorism" in a new context. Over the past ten years, Newspeak has become one of the characteristic features of the Russian political regime. Therefore, the use of the phrase "terrorist acts of the Kyiv junta", both in the international arena and for domestic use, for propagandistic programming of the population of Russia itself, is no longer surprising. Putin himself mentioned Chechnya less and less, even though from 2009-2017, there was an ongoing confrontation with radical groups that promoted the idea of creating the so-called "Caucasian Emirate" (recognized as a terrorist organization in the United States in 2011), and summarized in the Russian media calling it the "fight against terrorism in the North Caucasus". Then Moscow used loyal former separatists who, having received official positions and support, became "their own" [e.g., "Us" in the "Us vs Them" theory] and fought on its side.

The Syrian gambit

After 2001 and the September 11 terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the United States declared a "Global War on Terrorism (GWOT)". Putin understood that this was one of the opportunities to increase his weight in the international arena and find a common language with the "club" of developed states on the wave of the fight against Al-Qaeda and, further on, up to the so-called "reset" in the relations between Russia and the USA during the presidency of Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. However, already after the start of the civil war in Syria, Putin, who regained the formal status of the Russian president in 2012, supported the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad. Having sent Russia’s regular troops and military companies (in particular, the Wagner group, recognized as a terrorist organization in 2023) to Syria, Russia used them not only against the internationally recognized terrorist organization Islamic State (ISIS) but also against the Syrian opposition. Only in 2017 did Putin announce the beginning of withdrawing his troops from Syria. But contacts with the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad, which destroyed its own population with terrorist methods, did not stop. Already after the attack on Ukraine, in 2023, Assad visited Moscow and spoke in support of Russia's actions against Ukraine: "I would like to repeat the Syrian position in support of this special operation against neo-Nazis and old Nazis. I say that these are old and new Nazis because the West, just as it accepted the old Nazis on its land, supports them now."

Taliban: "prohibition (cannot be) allowed"

A few months after the seizure of power in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, a delegation from the Taliban paid a visit to Moscow. At that time, among the highest officials, Sergey Lavrov, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, met with them. He called the representatives of the Taliban a "respectable delegation" and, within the framework of the so-called "Moscow format regarding Afghanistan", talked about the possible international legalization and recognition of the Taliban's power. At the same time, Russia still recognizes the Taliban movement as extremist and terrorist, and Russian officials have not announced any changes in the official position in this regard. Until 2020, Russian authorities even initiated criminal against persons suspected of ties with the Taliban. During the seizure of the country's capital, Kabul, the Taliban guarded Russia’s diplomatic building while the embassies of other countries were forced to evacuate urgently.

In 2023, a similar meeting with Taliban representatives and delegations from Iran and Pakistan was held in Kazan. The Russian authorities were concerned about the presence and spread of influence of radical groups associated with the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda on the territory of Afghanistan. Some experts believe that Moscow is in contact with the Taliban because it is interested in peace on the borders of Afghanistan and control over drug trafficking. The Kremlin did not want to lose the opportunity to consolidate its influence in the territories from which the West unexpectedly left. Thus, we see an example when Moscow is ready to make efforts to legitimize one terrorist organization if it is in its interests to direct joint efforts to counteract other "foreign" radical movements.

Hamas visits to Moscow

One of Russia's tactics is to create and support so-called "zones of instability" in the world. Therefore, the invitation and official visits of delegations of the Hamas terrorist group to Moscow are not surprising. Even after the attack of Hamas on Israel on October 7, 2023, the Kremlin agitational propaganda is trying to use the new turn of the war in the Middle East to its advantage. In fact, the history of the Kremlin's official contacts with Hamas dates back almost 20 years, since this group won the first and only elections held in the Gaza Strip in 2006.

Less than three weeks after the Hamas attack on Israel, the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, announced "the visit of the following Palestinian movement to Moscow." However, unlike the Taliban, the Kremlin does not recognize the Hamas movement as a terrorist one. After October 7, it explains its position as "the need to maintain contacts with both sides of the conflict." At the same time, Hamas clearly sided with Russia in the war against Ukraine. One of the leaders of the organization's political wing, Abu Marzouk, said during a visit to Moscow that "Russia's special military operation in Ukraine aims to put an end to the dominance of the United States in the world and make the world multipolar. It is beneficial to all oppressed peoples, first of all, the Palestinian people."

According to Western observers and representatives of special services, the Kremlin's key interest in these contacts is to divert attention from the invasion of Ukraine and its own crimes and terrorist attacks against Ukrainians to maintain the impression of a global confrontation with the West. Ukraine is trying to highlight the common interests of the Kremlin and Hamas. Thus, the representative of HUR (Defence Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine), Andriy Yusov, claimed that the Russian "Wagner" group helped train Hamas soldiers. According to the world media, Hamas laundered a significant part of its funds through one of the crypto exchanges allegedly connected to Moscow and the FSB. However, the protracted conflict in the Middle East may indeed test the US's ability to support two allies in two separate wars simultaneously.

The terrorist attack in Moscow also became the basis for the activation of disinformation campaigns in social networks. For example, fact-checkers from Fake Reporters found a large number of accounts on the X platform (Twitter) that used artificial intelligence to generate posts repeating Russian propaganda narratives.

According to the Fake Reporters organization, a network of more than 22,000 accounts have been reactivated on the X (Twitter) platform and flooded the platform with repetitions of Russian narratives about the terrorist attack in Moscow. An analysis of the Israeli segment of the network, conducted at the request of the Haaretz newspaper, shows that all the fake accounts were created after the Hamas attack on October 7. Still, the vast majority of them were in March 2024. During the last week (mainly after the terrorist attack in Moscow on March 22), a total of more than 40,000 tweets were posted on topics related to the attack. The messages they push try to deflect attention from the attack and blame it on the West, and, of course, criticize the US, the UK, and Ukraine. The tweets repeat Russia's usual statements about "Ukrainian terrorists" and that "the Kyiv regime is the new center of terrorism in the world." According to the investigation, most of the tweets were written in Hebrew with errors, which gave the impression that they were generated with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). Many tweets claim that the US failed to prevent the attack, while other tweets blame Britain, arguing that it and Ukraine have cooperated. "It's amazing how the British and Ukrainians try to deflect all the blame from themselves", "all data leads to Kyiv and London", etc.

It is difficult to prove the direct involvement of Russian agitational propaganda in this or similar campaigns. However, it does not mean that the hybrid tactics of using and dividing into "us" and "them" prohibit terrorist and radical groups from using Russian rhetoric for their own benefit.

For decades, the Kremlin has used contacts and connections with organizations that it can officially recognize as terrorists to advance its interests. In conducting hybrid and asymmetric confrontations and wars in different parts of the world, such organizations could embody and become "proxies" leaders of interests and allies. Russia willingly modified its rhetoric if and when the situation or the balance of power had changed. However, the use of tactics of dividing "good" and "bad" terrorists by Russian propaganda does not guarantee that such organizations will not use the Russian position and interests as a cover for their own [interests] or as a way to obtain resources (financial or weapons) from Moscow.

Main image and infographic credits: Natalia Lobach

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