The Kremlin continues to blame Ukraine for the March 2024 attack on a music venue in Russia by Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). This linkage shows that, even when faced with a threat as serious as Jihadism, reinforcing domestic support for its war against Ukraine remains Moscow’s top priority.

On May 24, 2024, head of the FSB security service Alexander Bortnikov admitted for the first time that the March 22 attack at the Crocus City Hall music venue in Krasnogorsk, which killed around 150 people, was coordinated over the internet by Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). However, despite this acknowledgment, Bortnikov also repeated the assertion that Ukraine was behind the attack. According to the state news agency TASS, Bortnikov said: “The investigation is ongoing, but it is already safe to say that Ukrainian military intelligence is directly involved in this attack.”

The attack shows that Russia is vulnerable and that the focus on Ukraine is coming at a high cost in terms of resources, attention, and capacities on other fronts. However, the fact that Russia’s leadership continues to link the attack to the situation in Ukraine shows that, even when faced with the return of Jihadism—historically an ontological enemy of Russia—reinforcing domestic support for its war of aggression in Ukraine remains Moscow’s top priority. For the transatlantic community, Russia’s obsession with linking the attack to Ukraine—providing no evidence for this linkage—even while openly admitting that IS-K coordinated it, should serve as a further reminder that anyone who thinks the return of specific domestic threats or other issues might affect Putin’s resolve on Ukraine is deluding themselves. The transatlantic community therefore must continue strengthening its support for Ukraine, as this is the only way to consistently address Moscow’s resolve. 

Putin tried to link the attack to an alleged Ukrainian plot immediately after the March 2024 attack. However, the evidence provided to confirm this suspected linkage is weak. Peter R. Neumann, a renowned terrorism expert at King’s College in London, said: "Putin is currently trying to construct a kind of anti-Russian 'axis of evil'. But he lacks any evidence for this.”

It remains unclear why Putin did not heed the United States’ advice that an attack was imminent. Ruslan Leviev, a Russian activist who operates the investigative network Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), explains that the reason could be that the warning simply did not fit into Putin’s narrative of Russia’s fight with the West.

In recent years, many people had forgotten how significant the Jihadist threat has been for Russia. Historically, the Russian Empire and then the atheist Soviet Union were seen as major enemies of Islam. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was instrumental in building that peculiar momentum in which Salafism and Wahhabism merged with revolutionary ideals, creating the environment for the emergence of Al-Qaeda. The narrative propagated by IS-K still frequently references Russia’s historical involvement in Afghanistan as a major issue. Jihadist groups consider Russians “systemic enemies”, and Moscow’s support for Syria and Iran over the past few years has reinforced this view.

Putin’s assertive policies in Africa and the Middle East of the past decade have also reinforced Russia’s value as a target for jihadist attacks. Indeed, the past ten years have also cemented the Jihadist view that Russia is not just a standard “near/far enemy”. In the Jihadist terminology, Russia could be considered a near enemy, given the history of grievances that Russian Muslims have and the wars in the country’s Caucasian peripheries. However, Moscow also turned into an all-around IS enemy in light of its support for actors such as Bashar al-Assad, the Kurds, and Hamas. The latter is seen as an enemy by more radical groups because it is too focused on narrower national issues and align with Shia “infidels”—such as Russia, through its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. Moreover, Russia’s support is instrumental in waging war against local IS branches in Africa through Wagner’s forces. Moscow uses these mercenaries as a tool of foreign policy to increase its influence in the countries facing a rising Jihadist threat and whose elites have become increasingly unhappy with France and the West as a whole. Moscow is also active on the continent in an aggressive political-religious campaign, using the Russian Orthodox Church as a tool of power projection and proselytism. This increasing religious activism will likely add fuel to Jihadi groups’ hatred. 

The Crocus Hall attack is a powerful reminder of how significant Jihadist threats are for Russia. Russian authorities, despite the warnings, failed to avoid this bloodshed. Since March 24, they have tried to link the attack to the situation in Ukraine. While this might sound bizarre to Western ears, the strategy could pay dividends internally, and one should not underestimate the impact of the terrorist attack. Putin and his circle may well succeed in portraying the massacre at Crocus Hall as evidence that Russia is “under siege”. Propaganda in Russia still works well and effectively. Outside the big cities, Kremlin narratives still fall on fertile ground. 

Moscow’s persistence in blaming Ukraine shows that building up the idea of an anti-Russian “axis of evil” using the March 24 attack to boost domestic propaganda remains Putin’s top priority. The Kremlin’s continued insistence on pushing its narrative of alleged Ukraine linkages shows that the war of aggression in Ukraine remains the only prism through which it sees all events at the moment. Putin’s obsession should push the transatlantic community to provide even more support for Ukraine, including the proper weapons and capacities, as it is clear that this is the only way to stop Russia. Not even the return of a domestic security threat as dangerous as Jihadist terrorism will push Putin to shift his focus away from the goal of subjugating Ukraine.