Vladimir Putin launched a smear campaign against Ukraine.

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VVladimir Putin He is a man who likes victories. Preferably stage managed. An electrifying concert followed by a decisive electoral victory. An impassioned address on Victory Day. Eight goals in an ice hockey game.

The dictator copes less well with unexpected setbacks, preferring to disappear from the stage. In 2000 he botched his response to the Kursk submarine tragedy. He was absent for more than a day after the failed attack on a Beslan school in 2004, in which 186 children were taken hostage. Last year, when Yevgeny Prigozhin and his band of mercenaries marched on Moscow, Mr. Putin was initially nowhere to be seen. So if he took a full 19 hours to prepare for a brief TV performance in Moscow’s Croix City Hall to talk about a massive intelligence failure, he was falling in a familiar fashion.

The address itself gave little away—and appeared to act as a hedge. Mr Putin absurdly claimed that Ukraine had opened a border “window” to terrorists as they tried to flee Russia in their white Renault badges. (Eleven people whom Russian authorities say were responsible for the attack have been arrested.) But Mr. Putin has avoided placing responsibility for the attack directly on Ukraine — and has said nothing about the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for the attack. said he had done it.

Part of Mr. Putin’s reluctance to blame Ukraine may reflect concern that the U.S. government is sitting on intelligence that could undermine such a claim. The failure of its security agencies to heed US warnings of an imminent attack on March 7 may have caused some embarrassment. Indeed, just three days before the attack, Mr Putin dismissed the intelligence as “black mail”. Such a shameful mistake would have consequences in a country where force can be reckoned with. Russia is not such a country.

Still, the attack is a blow to Mr. Putin’s reputation and the security services he relies on. The manner of the attack, in which at least 137 people lost their lives, will not soon be forgotten. Some victims were killed within minutes when the gunmen opened fire with automatic rifles. But after the attackers set fire to the auditorium, most died of fire and smoke inhalation. More than 200 people may have been in the hall when part of the roof collapsed. When emergency workers reached the smoldering ash, they found 28 bodies in a single toilet. Entire families were reportedly hiding together with mothers protecting their children.

There are many questions about the lackluster security of the glitzy venue in an amusement park on the northwestern outskirts of Moscow. It is not clear why the local police failed to respond immediately. A producer of the show held at Croix City Hall ten days before the attack said 200 security guards were present that night. Some seemingly unusual aspects of the attack — for the supposed jihadists, the killers seemed keen to stay alive — have fueled conspiracy theories that parts of the Russian establishment may have been involved.

A more plausible explanation is that an Islamist terrorist group took advantage of Russia’s war distractions, ethnic tensions and economic difficulties. Russia provides clear opportunities for jihadist recruitment among poor immigrants from the mostly Muslim former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Unofficial figures show that there are 8 million immigrants from Tajikistan alone in Russia.

These immigrants represented an important role in the wartime economy, taking low-paying jobs that Russians did not want, such as street sweeping and minimum wage construction. But racial tensions are rising. Mr Putin addressed them indirectly in his state of the nation address on February 29, toning down his previous nationalist rhetoric and stressing Russia’s “multi-ethnicity”.

The group that claimed responsibility for the attack is affiliated with the Islamic State, which calls itself the Islamic State-Khorasan Province. Based primarily in Afghanistan but with followers in Central Asia, it carried out two bombings in Iran in January that killed more than 100 people. One source of his grievances against Russia is the country’s involvement in the war in Syria, where the Kremlin (along with Iran) has backed the Assad regime against Islamic State and other rebels. Islamic State is also suspected of a 2017 metro attack in St Petersburg that killed 15 people.

After previous crises, Mr. Putin has shrugged off any questions about his power. When he finally reappeared after the Beslan massacre, he declared “beat the weak” and canceled direct local elections. The subsequent crackdown on dissent and freedom of the press was a harbinger of worse to come. More recently, Mr Prigosan’s rebellion saw his plane blown out of the sky when he was supposedly with his boss.

The Kremlin will no doubt use the Moscow attack as an excuse to further tighten domestic tensions. Some of his most loyal lieutenants have called for the repeal of Russia’s ban on the death penalty for terrorism. The threat takes on added significance in light of the Kremlin’s recent habit of applying the label to opponents of the regime, including a veteran crime fiction writer. Migrant communities are already feeling the pinch, with raids on mosques and hostels reported in major cities across Russia. But blaming Ukraine has propaganda value, and threatening migrant workers carries economic risks. The Kremlin is therefore unlikely to systematically address its security vulnerabilities.

Indeed, Mr. Putin indicated that the main consequences of a terrorist attack would be felt in Ukraine. He could use this to justify his efforts to raise more troops for his war there. Kremlin-aligned media are helping shape the narrative. One published “investigations” suggesting that the terrorists were recruited by the Ukrainian embassy in Tajikistan. Activists at antibot4navalny, a cyber monitoring group, have recorded a notable increase in bots’ social media activity. FSB, Russia’s security agency. Most of the fake news blamed Ukraine, as well as the United States and Britain, for the Moscow attack.

An intelligence source in Ukraine says he hopes such efforts will be stepped up, using weak arguments to redirect blame. “Maybe they’ll start blaming France too,” he said. “Eventually, the men escaped in a Renault.”

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