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Is Putin’s Ukraine obsession distracting from a rising threat at home?

It’s the same narrative that was used just a few months ago when armed militants killed 145 people at the Crocus City Hall concert venue near Moscow, even though an affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Instead of investigating how Russia’s intelligence services could have missed an attack of such significance, Moscow immediately accused Kyiv and its Western allies of helping to orchestrate it. Such accusations reinforce the Kremlin’s public narrative that the West is the biggest existential threat to the security of ordinary Russians.

But two major terrorist attacks happening so close together “will raise questions about whether the war in Ukraine has distracted the Kremlin from what is happening inside Russia,” said Neil Melvin, the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

Melvin added that the re-emergence of violence in Dagestan this week is a threat to regional stability in the North Caucasus and to Putin’s claim to have restored order there.

The Kremlin did not always try that hard to quash narratives around violent Islamism.

Dagestan is a predominantly Muslim region of Russia in the North Caucasus. Extremist violence increased there in the early 2000s in the wake of two wars waged by Russian forces in neighboring Chechnya. Those conflicts allowed Putin to claim to have brought peace and stability to the turbulent region and burnish his image as Russia’s guarantor of security.

The street of Makhachkala in southern Russia and plumes of smoke rising from a building in Derbent, Russia, on Monday.The street of Makhachkala in southern Russia and plumes of smoke rising from a building in Derbent, Russia, on Monday.Reuters

But more recently, Dagestan — like other ethnic minority regions — has borne the brunt of Putin’s sometimes unpopular efforts to mobilize men for the Ukraine war. The region also made headlines in October when an anti-Israeli mob stormed the airport in the Dagestan capital of Makhachkala after a passenger flight arrived from Israel just weeks after the Oct. 7 attack. 

In the past, the Kremlin has blamed “international terrorism” and “jihadism” for fresh outbreaks of violence in Russia’s Caucasus, bringing it in line with Western countries facing similar threats, said Michael Clarke, a visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London. “But since 2022, the Kremlin has worked hard to imply that these attacks are somehow inspired from outside and more specifically that they lead back to Kyiv, however tenuously,” he said. 

On Monday, Dagestan Gov. Sergei Melikov suggested authorities knew who was behind the attacks and what their goals were, but he stopped short of naming any perpetrators, mentioning only what he said were internationally controlled “sleeper cells.” 

Russia Dagestan AttacksOfficials inside a burned-out synagogue in Derbent, Dagestan, on Tuesday.AFP – Getty Images

Opaque and mixed messaging has also been a feature of official responses to previous terrorist attacks on Russian soil.

Days after the Crocus City Hall attack in March, Putin said it was carried out by “radical Islamists” but questioned who directed them. Two weeks after that, he said Russia could not have been targeted by “Islamic fundamentalists” because it’s a “unique example of interfaith agreement and unity.”

The denial may have meant “the security services’ distraction by the war in Ukraine was not amended after the Crocus City Hall attack,” said Harold Chambers, a political analyst specializing in Russia at Indiana University Bloomington. 

Notably, after Sunday’s attack, Russian state media reported that a local official, Magomed Omarov, had been relieved of his post and expelled from the ruling United Russia party. Those reports claimed that Omarov’s son and nephew took part in the attacks. The allegations, if true, will raise uncomfortable questions for the Kremlin. 

Putin Wreath Laying CeremonyPutin during a wreath laying ceremony in the Alexandrovsky Garden in Moscow earlier this month. Alexander Kazakov / AFP – Getty Images

“The higher status of the most recent Dagestan militants indicates that the counterterrorism landscape in the North Caucasus has shifted significantly,” Chambers said.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters Monday he did not have any assessment of who perpetrated the attack. Three U.S. officials told NBC News that no branch of ISIS has publicly taken credit for the attack but that other local extremist groups may be responsible.

Telegram channels associated with the ISIS affiliate group that carried out the attack at Crocus praised Sunday’s attack by “our brothers from the Caucasus,” but they did not claim responsibility.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War argued that the Islamic State group’s North Caucasus branch, Vilayat Kavkaz, likely was behind the attack, describing it as “complex and coordinated.”

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