Russia’s political class is taking a dark and vengeful turn

(CNN) — The headlines from Russia in recent weeks have been grim: the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a rigged election and President Vladimir Putin’s ruthless insistence on escalating his war in Ukraine.

Now there has been another shock to the system, the horrific killing of at least 139 people in a terrorist attack at a concert hall just outside Moscow. And with its brutal official response to the attack, Russia appears to have taken an even darker turn.

While the terrorist group ISIS has claimed responsibility for the massacre by releasing gruesome images of the massacre, the Kremlin has distorted them. Putin first suggested, implausibly and without any evidence, that Ukraine had “opened a window” for terrorists to flee across the active border line. On Monday, he said the crime was “committed by radical Islamists” but again alleged that the perpetrators had planned to flee to Ukraine. Kiev has vehemently denied involvement and called the Kremlin’s claims “absurd.”

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has dismissed questions about US warnings about the threat of terrorist attacks in Russia. “Intelligence is never given to the Kremlin,” he said in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “It is provided through channels from one intelligence agency to another. It is classified as sensitive information which is not disclosed.”

Peskov said: “There are currently no contacts with Westerners.”

Putin came to power promising to be tough on terrorists: The former KGB agent was a relatively unknown politician when he promised to “eliminate” Chechen separatists in 1999.

The threat came after a series of apartment bombings in Russia that killed hundreds of people and sparked weeks of national panic. Putin would follow through on his threat with an invasion of separatist Chechnya, a move that would position him as the tough guy in charge of Russia, an image that would help him regain undisputed power.

The second war in Chechnya was a brutal affair, and human rights activists documented the emergence of so-called “filtration camps”, where civilians were routinely subjected to humiliation, torture, and sometimes extrajudicial execution. Russian troops repeated this exercise in occupied parts of Ukraine.

The despicable conduct of Russian security forces in both Chechnya and Ukraine has often remained out of public view, at least when it comes to the narrative promoted through official Russian media. But after Friday’s attack on the Crocus City Hall, the brutality of Russian security services was exposed.

A man suspected of involvement in the attack is taken away by Russian law enforcement officers ahead of a pre-trial detention hearing at the Basmanny District Court in Moscow on March 24, 2024. (Credit: Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images)

Video footage and still images that have surfaced on Russian social media appear to show the violent interrogation of several people allegedly involved in the terrorist attack. A video shows one of the suspects, Saidakrami Rachablizoda, being pinned to the ground while an interrogator cuts off part of his ear. A pro-Kremlin Telegram channel posted a still photo showing a second person being electrocuted.

The answer? Open guilt by some prominent Kremlin-linked figures.

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russian state propaganda network RT, posted a video on the Russian social network VK, showing a suspect in the Crocus City Hall attack trembling during interrogation. And in a separate post

She wrote, “I never expected this from myself, but when I see him brought to the court bowed, and even with his ears cut off, I feel nothing but joy. It happens.”

A suspect in Friday’s shooting at the Crocus City Hall is in a wheelchair at the Basmanny District Court in Moscow, Sunday, March 24, 2024. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

The Kremlin’s silence on the matter is telling, with Peskov declining to comment when asked about evidence of mistreatment of suspects. This sends a message to ordinary Russians and the world: Russian state security forces are capable of anything.

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and Putin’s surrogate during his four-year hiatus, was characteristically militant in his comments on the tragedy. According to Russian state news agency TASS, Medvedev said, “Everyone asks me what should be done?” “They were caught. Congratulations to everyone who caught them.”

“Should they be killed?” Medvedev further said. “Of course. And it will. But it’s even more important to kill everyone involved. Everyone. Who paid, who sympathized, who helped. Kill them all.”

Medvedev is no longer a major political player, but has emerged as a reliable indicator of far-right sentiment in Russia following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. And that kind of extremist sentiment seems to be increasing. Russia does not have the death penalty, but in a statement on state channel Rossiya-24, Vladimir Vasiliev, head of the United Russia faction in the lower house of parliament, said his fellow lawmakers could consider the issue of reviving it.

“Many questions are now being asked about the death penalty,” he said, according to state news agency RIA-Novosti. “This issue will definitely be addressed in a thorough, professional and meaningful manner. And a decision will be taken that will meet the mood and expectations of our society.”

It may be difficult to gauge the sentiments of society at large, but the mood of Russia’s political class is already clear. He is vindictive and all options are on the table.

—CNN journalist Anna Chernova contributed to this report.

(TagstoTranslate)War Russia(T)Moscow(T)Vladimir Putin

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