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Ghosts of Beslan

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Welcome to EURACTIV’s Global Europe Brief, your weekly update on the EU from a global perspective. You can subscribe to receive our newsletter here.

As the deadly Moscow attack shatters Vladimir Putin’s security promise to Russians, he’ll likely be looking for an easy win elsewhere.

Less than a week ago, Russia’s president triumphantly claimed a fifth term with his highest-ever share of the vote.

In recent years, things have been comparatively quiet, Putin’s security apparatus appeared to have internal threats under control. But now his security promise to Russians was put into question by its failure to prevent the deadliest terrorist attack on Russian soil in 20 years.

The concert hall massacre near Moscow brough back memories of attacks in the past decades, most related to the wars against Chechen separatists in the 1990s and 2000s, that helped enable Putin’s rise to power.

Putin used most of those violent incidents, like the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis or the 2004 Beslan school siege, to justify the rollback of political freedoms or crackdown on Chechen separatists.

After Russia’s deadliest terrorist attack in years on 23 March, Putin remained silent for more than 19 hours.

When he eventually spoke, Putin repeated suggestions earlier made by other Russian officials that four suspected gunmen had been detained, and that some of the perpetrators were arrested in the western Bryansk region, which borders Belarus and Ukraine.

The four “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 said.

He provided no evidence whatsoever to corroborate his claim but that did not deter him from developing the narrative further.

“Our common duty now — our comrades at the front, all citizens of the country — is to be together in one formation,” Putin said at the end of a five-minute speech, linking the fight against terrorism with his invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials denied any involvement, even before Putin’s statement.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said in the hours after the incident that his country “has nothing to do with” it and had “never used terrorist methods” as it continues to fight off a full-scale Russian invasion launched in 2022.

Ukrainian military planners and special forces have insisted that they only pursue military targets, as well as supplies and infrastructure for the Russian war effort.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the attack, with its Amaq agency publishing bodycam footage of the attack taken by ISIS members during the attack in Moscow.

US officials confirmed the authenticity of the IS claim in comments to multiple domestic media, referencing earlier warnings by their services that “extremists” were planning for an attack in the capital.

Podolyak warned that the deadly incident would “contribute to a sharp increase in military propaganda, accelerated militarisation, expanded mobilisation, and, ultimately, the scaling up of the war”.

Indeed, Russia launched a massive air strike on Ukraine early on Sunday (24 March) with Ukraine’s air defence systems shooting down 18 Russian cruise missiles and 25 Shahed drones in eight regions, Ukrainian officials said.

A Ukrainian source I spoke to over the weekend said the notion was very much that Moscow would use the incident as an excuse to bring forward its spring offensive, which Zelenskyy has dated for May.

“It’s relatively unlikely that the Russians will wait until the West provides all the ammunition we need, they might go ahead earlier than that,” the source added.

In recent weeks, Russian forces have retaken the initiative on the front line, while Ukraine is struggling amid flagging Western support and a shortage of ammunition and troops.

As warnings are increasing of a Russian breakthrough on the Ukrainian front, some EU officials stressed earlier this week that the very fact we are even talking about the possibility should be an urgent “wake-up call” to speed up efforts to help Kyiv.

POST-EUCO RECAP

DEFENCE DEBATE | Since Russia invaded Ukraine, ramping up EU defence industry production has been on the agenda of member states’ leaders, but it is only slowly beginning to gain traction as the bloc’s leaders remain divided over how to finance weapons.

The European Investment Bank (EIB), meanwhile, said it may move one step closer to loosening its lending criteria to unlock more direct investment into defence.

MIDDLE EAST PUSH | In a somewhat breakthrough, EU leaders this week called for an “immediate humanitarian pause leading to a sustainable ceasefire” in Gaza and urged Israel not to launch a major ground offensive in the southernmost city of Rafah.

Meanwhile, Ireland, Malta, Slovenia, and Spain said they are ready to recognise the state of Palestine as the “only way to achieve peace and security” in the war-ridden region.

WIDER EUROPE

UKRAINE’s PITCH | Ukraine’s future accession to the bloc will bring more benefits than costs, and EU member states should approve the next formal steps later this week, the country’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told Euractiv this week.

BOSNIA TALKS | EU leaders also gave their political green light for opening membership talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina but also made clear the Western Balkan country would have to undertake more reforms before the actual talks could start.

DEFENCE BRIEFING

FRANCO-GERMAN TANKS | French and German Defence Ministers Sébastien Lecornu and Boris Pistorius announced a major breakthrough in bilateral defence collaborations, as both countries will officially start to develop a new tank and produce military equipment in Ukraine.

SATELLITE LAUNCH | EU member states have agreed on a deal that will see EU Galileo satellites launched from US territory in a last-ditch effort and extraordinary measure to save their space programme.

WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

What the Latest U.N. Cease-Fire Vote Means [Foreign Policy]
Food Weaponization Makes a Deadly Comeback [Foreign Affairs]
There Will Be No ‘Short, Sharp’ War. A Fight Between The US And China Would Likely Go On For Years. [Atlantic Council]
Clock Is Ticking As Central Asia Confronts Water Calamity [EurasiaNet]

ON OUR RADAR NEXT WEEK

EU agriculture ministers meet on Ukraine ATMs and Russia food tarrifs| Tuesday, 26 March 2024 | Brussels, Belgium
UN Security Council meets on Gaza| Tuesday, 26 March 2024 | United Nations, United States
Poland-Ukraine hold talks on border crossings row| Thursday, 28 March 2024 | Warsaw, Poland
20th anniversary of the accession to NATO of seven Eastern European countries| Friday, 29 March 2024 | Brussels, Belgium

Editor’s note: The Global Europe Brief will take a break over the Easter holiday. It will resume publication on Sunday, 7 April.

PREVIOUS EDITIONS

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Read more with Euractiv

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