5 min read

After the Crocus City Hall attack, Russian media looks for someone to blame

Who’s listening to the Kremlin’s line that Ukraine was somehow behind last week’s terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall? A lot of people, it turns out.
After the Crocus City Hall attack, Russian media looks for someone to blame

After the deadly bombing at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall, a curious narrative took hold in the Russian media. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, but the “real” culprit was Ukraine.

Lieutenant Colonel Shkurlatov claimed that “The ears of the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate are visible behind the terrorist attack in Crocus.” Shkurlatov’s comments were picked up by pro-Kremlin news outlets across the Russian media landscape, but he was only one of many commentators blaming Ukraine for the attack. 

Of course, Western outlets have noticed the effort to blame Kiev, and decried it. But we haven’t seen reports to date of anyone measuring the extent or effectiveness of the Kremlin’s campaign. So the FilterLabs.AI team decided to take a look. In the aftermath of the attack, we analyzed thousands of mainstream Russian news articles and social media artifacts (posts, messages, forums, etc.). We now have a clear sense of just how far the campaign to blame Ukraine has gone. 

Compare the number of mainstream Russian press stories about the attack that mention Ukraine (blue) to the number that mention the Islamic State (red):

As you can see, Ukraine dominated the narrative from the start—and its prominence in the conversation only increased as the week went on. This is remarkable, considering that the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the massacre. But when FilterLabs staff took a closer look at the individual stories our platform Talisman had unearthed, it was true: Ukraine was a hotter topic than the organization that actually carried out the attack.

Some news commentators acknowledged the role of Islamic militants, before quickly pivoting to who they saw as the real villains. For instance, a pro-Putin outlet admitted that the gunmen belonged to “extremist Wahhabi underground groups” but also insisted that Ukrainian involvement was undeniable. “Secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council … Alexey Danilov, essentially confessed that in fact the Kiev regime was behind the terrorist attack,” the article claimed (presumably in reference to a video of Danilov that was later proved to be a deep fake). When the alleged attackers were arrested near the Ukrainian border the day after the attack, the chorus blaming Ukraine grew louder still. 

In other cases, reports blamed Ukraine alone, denying that the Islamic state had anything to do with the attacks. In the words of one staunchly pro-Kremlin outlet, “There were no demands or conditions put forward... They came in and immediately began to fire to kill. All this says one thing—the action was developed and planned by the Ukrainian special services.” The attackers may have been from the Middle East, the author continued, but they were in fact a Ukrainian sleeper cell. 

And why stop with Ukraine? Some commentators blamed Western governments, too. “The massacre of Russian civilians was organized and financed by the CIA and Ukrainian intelligence services,” one article claimed. Another article accused Western intelligence agencies of encouraging radicalization among immigrant groups: “Behind the … officials and liberals agitating for the increase and assimilation of migrants, the ears of the CIA and MI6 stick out.” 

Notably absent from the Russian mainstream press was almost any discussion of Syria. Of course, Russia and the Islamic State were major combatants during the Syrian civil war, but the possibility that the attack was a consequence of Russian foreign adventures was not seriously considered. It might have raised uncomfortable questions about the long-term consequences of the war in Ukraine. 

Outside of mainstream news, Ukraine was also a more popular topic in discussion of the attack on Russian social media: 

Once again, stories that mentioned Ukraine in discussing the attack outpaced stories that mentioned the Islamic State by a wide margin.

Most of the narratives on social media matched the narratives in the mainstream media. On the social media app Odnoklassniki (OK), there was overwhelming support for the theory that Ukraine was involved. Many called for the Russian government to stop being so “gentle” with them. “The fact that terrorists tried to hide in Ukraine should not surprise anyone,” read one missive on messaging platform Telegram. “Since 2014, the country has become a safe haven for various types of militants, terrorists and bandits.”

There were also videos of Ukranians allegedly celebrating the attacks, and predictably angry responses.

Once again, conspiracy theories emerged. Some posts expressed skepticism about the Islamic State’s involvement. Often when those posting did acknowledge that the attackers were affiliated with the Islamic State, they also accused Ukrainian or Western intelligence agencies of ordering the operation.

There were also a few posts that blamed the Russian government itself. One post commented “They found the main suspect” and posted a picture of Putin. People seemed receptive to the idea that the Kremlin might have been involved. In an online forum one commenter noted, “ISIS takes responsibility for any bullshit that happens in the world.” Blaming the Kremlin was a minority view, to be sure—but it’s worth noting that Putin was mentioned in a higher percentage of ordinary Russians’ online discussion about the attack than in coverage by Russian news.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe how far propaganda can travel, and how potent it can be. When Lieutenant Colonel Shkurlatov blamed Ukraine for the terrible attack on Crocus City Hall, it seemed like a classic bit of misdirection, meant to distract and exasperate both the Russian reader and the Western press. Surely it would not convince anyone.

But, according to FilterLabs’ analysis, the narrative that Ukraine is to blame has flooded Russian media and Russian society. Some of it may be cynical propaganda from the Kremlin and its allied media outlets, of course, but plenty of people on social media seemed to buy it. 

In the press and on social media, Russians were not interested in talking about their nation’s historical military involvement in predominantly Muslim nations (Syria, Chechnya, and so on). They were not particularly interested in ISIS. Instead, almost all of the commentary about the terrorist attack focused on the current conflict with Ukraine and with Western democracies.

If the Kremlin has its way, the ultimate outcome of the Crocus City Hall attacks may be more violence in Ukraine. 

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