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24 June 2024

The Kremlin will exploit the Dagestan terror attacks

Instead of facing a growing threat from Islamist militants, Russia will try to pin the blame on Ukraine.

By Katie Stallard

Clad in black, the gunmen surrounded a synagogue and an Orthodox church in Derbent, an ancient city on the Caspian Sea in the Southern Russian region of Dagestan, on 23 June. Then they opened fire with assault-style weapons. They killed the police officers who had been stationed outside the Kele-Numaz synagogue – home to one of Russia’s oldest Jewish communities – after anti-Semitic mobs stormed the regional airport looking for passengers from a flight from Tel Aviv last October. The terrorists set the synagogue on fire with Molotov cocktails before murdering Father Nikolai Kotelnikov, a 66-year-old Orthodox priest at the Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin, reportedly by slitting his throat. 

Around the same time – close to 6pm – another group of gunmen attacked the Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption in the regional capital, Makhachkala, more than 100 kilometres away, along with the city’s synagogue and a nearby police patrol. The cathedral’s priests, who had been marking the Orthodox festival of Pentecost, locked themselves inside the building until tactical units arrived. 

At least 20 people were dead, according to the local authorities, including 15 police officers and four civilians. Five suspected attackers were also said to have been killed. Sergei Melikov, the head of the predominantly Muslim region, visited the site of the attacks on Monday and declared three days of public mourning. But instead of admitting the obvious – that Russia is facing a growing problem with Islamist violence – Melikov attempted to implicate Ukraine.  

“The war is coming to our homes,” Melikov declared in a video posted on the social media platform Telegram. “We understand who is behind the organisation of the terrorist attacks and what goal they pursued.” His comments were echoed by the head of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee, Leonid Slutsky, who attempted to link the attack to a missile strike in the Russian-occupied region of Crimea on the same day. “These tragic events, I am sure, were orchestrated from abroad,” Slutsky said. “[They] are aimed at sowing panic and dividing the Russian people.” 

This should not come as a surprise. Three months earlier, when Islamist militants attacked the Crocus City concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow in March, killing 145 people in Russia’s deadliest terrorist incident in over a decade, Islamic State claimed it was responsible for the massacre. Yet Russian officials focused instead on baseless allegations that Ukraine and the West was behind the attack.  

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In that case, one of the surviving suspects was shown during a police interrogation video – with clear signs that he had been tortured – claiming that following the attack the group had instructions to “head towards Kyiv”. In the latest attacks in Dagestan, the suspected perpetrators are dead and unable to be beaten into confessing, but don’t be surprised if investigators later claim to have uncovered “evidence” of links to Ukraine.  

This would suit both the local officials who will now face tough questions from Moscow about how they allowed this to happen on their watch, and Vladimir Putin, himself, who has long presented himself to Russians as the man who brought stability and security back to the country. In the coming days, we can expect to hear anything but the truth: that Putin’s obsession with subjugating Ukraine and chasing fictional Nazis across the border is leaving his own citizens increasingly vulnerable to the real threat of extremism.  

[See also: The myth of negotiated peace]

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