Moscow Terrorist Attack 'Serious Intelligence Failure,' Says Ex-U.S. Envoy To Russia

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow (file photo)

WASHINGTON — A former U.S. envoy to Moscow said the worst terrorist attack on Russian soil in nearly two decades represents “a serious intelligence failure” and warned that President Vladimir Putin could use it to justify further mobilization and oppression.

Alexander Vershbow, who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 2001 to 2005, a period that saw two of the worst terrorist attacks in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, said it was “hard to explain” how the perpetrators were able to take so many lives considering the United States had warned the Kremlin weeks earlier of just such a possible assault.

The toll from the March 22 deadly attack at a popular concert hall at the edge of Moscow has already reached 133, but Russian authorities have warned it is likely to climb higher. The Islamic State (IS) militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst in Russia since 333 were killed at a school in Beslan in North Ossetia in September 2004.

“It seems kind of unbelievable that Russian security services missed this,” Vershbow told RFE/RL in a March 23 interview from Washington, where he is an analyst at the Atlantic Council, noting the public U.S. message on March 7 that Putin later derided. U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said on March 23 that Washington had also privately warned Russian authorities at the same time.

“Clearly, it was an intelligence failure for this to happen in such a prominent venue right on the beltway of Moscow, and to have such a serious death toll despite those small number of terrorists that appear to have actually perpetrated the act,” Vershbow said.

IS said four perpetrators carried out the attack at the Crocus City Hall venue, while Russia said it has arrested four suspected gunmen along with seven others who were allegedly involved.

Vershbow dismissed speculation that the attack could have been an internal job for domestic purposes.

Putin’s rise to power in 1999 came on the heels of several explosions in Russia that were blamed on Chechen terrorists. There has long been speculation that the bombings were masterminded by the Federal Security Services (FSB) to catapult Putin into the Kremlin though it has never been proven.

Vershbow said that, in contrast to the 1999 attacks, he did not see the March 22 attack “as being in the interest of Putin.”

‘Chilling’ Speech

Nonetheless, he said the Kremlin leader may seek to use the tragic event to pin blame on the West, generate more forces for his war in Ukraine, and crush any remaining opposition to his rule.

“The Russians may choose to link this [terrorist attack] to their war against the collective West and hold the U.S. and its Ukrainian proxies — as they might call them — ultimately responsible. I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” he said.

In a March 23 statement, Putin said the four suspected gunmen “tried to hide and were moving toward Ukraine, where, according to preliminary information, the Ukrainian side had prepared a window for them to cross the border.”

Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has failed to achieve its initial goals in part because of large-scale Western aid to Kyiv. Putin now portrays the war as one against NATO.

Vershbow accused Putin in his “chilling” speech following the 2004 Beslan attack of using the United States as a scapegoat to cover up for what he said was another Russian intelligence failure.

In that speech, Putin said that there are some countries who see Russia as a threat, and they are helping others who want to dismember the country. Terrorism, Putin said, was just “an instrument to achieve these goals.”

Putin eliminated direct elections for governors following the Beslan attack, tightening his grip on power. Vershbow warned more oppression could follow on the heels of this attack.

“If they decide to emphasize the U.S. and Ukraine link, then I think we can anticipate very harsh measures at home in the wake of this intelligence failure,” Vershbow said.

He said the Crocus attack may also be used “to justify a significant mobilization of additional forces for the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin this time may not allow hundreds of thousands of Russians to flee mobilization as it had after the first call-up in September 2022, he said.

Regardless of how Putin tries to portray the attack, it will impact his image, Vershbow said.

“Russians may no longer have the opportunity to ask why this could have happened in a public way, but they’ll be asking themselves around the kitchen table ‘how can our great president have allowed this to happen’?”

Source: Regions