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The Crocus City terrorist attack: concluding the election and continuing the special military operation

Elena Koneva, 7 May 2024


The Crocus City terrorist attack became a significant event in post-election Russia and temporarily overshadowed the rest of public life. According to Open Mind Institute analysis, the terrorist attack remained the dominant topic on social networks, Telegram channels and YouTube for several weeks – 88% of new posts were related to the terrorist attack.

The state media focused on reports about the apprehension of the attackers, expansion of the circle of suspects and speculation about possible instigators: “The person behind the terrorist attack in Crocus City Hall has not yet been identified, but there is an understanding of who organized and recruited the attackers and set the tasks”. Ukraine, the United States, Great Britain, and “Western intelligence agencies” were named.

The ExtremeScan study was conducted two weeks after the event – enough time for the intense propaganda to be internalized. 

Who ordered the terrorist attack

The question regarding who had ordered the terrorist attack was asked with a rotation of options. A single choice was allowed.

Figure 1. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024
Figure 1. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024

These data are close to the results obtained by the Levada Center, which conducted a poll where several answers could be given to a similar question.

The figures for the positions of “the West,” radical Islamists, “internal forces in Russia” (aka “Russian special services”), and even the share of those who found it difficult to answer coincided almost completely.

It is interesting that the share of “Ukrainian trace” exceeds twice when multiple answers are possible. Apparently, this is a consequence of the main content in the mass propaganda domain.

Figure 2. Source: Levada Center, April 2024
Figure 2. Source: Levada Center, April 2024

The “loyalist” party – 64% of respondents – accepts the propaganda story about the responsibility of the West and Ukraine. “Skeptics” – a mere 13% – delegate the blame to religious extremists and “some forces within Russia.”

For loyalists, the West and Ukraine are different personifications of the same “collective” enemy.

In just two weeks, without providing any arguments, propaganda has convinced its audience that the terrorist attack was the work of the West and Ukraine. The reason for this success is not only the mass lack of critical thinking on the part of Russian residents. The mechanism of negativization – attributing negative qualities and actions to the enemy – works for the same position. Why think about some abstract ISIS when you are facing the primary, actual enemy, which is increasingly actively shelling Russian territory?

Skeptics are united in their attitude towards the authorities and the war – they are people who have not accepted the ridiculous version of events provided by the authorities.

The seemingly fundamentally different answers (ISIS and “forces within Russia”) probably overlap in people's minds within the framework of the interpretation “ISIS with the deliberate connivance or assistance of Russia's special services”.

In the Levada Center poll, the Russian security services, cited as the apparent culprit, received the same 4%

Political loyalty prism

The intersection of the question about who ordered the terrorist attack with the questions about the special military operation and approval of the president's activity shows that the opinion about the origin of the terrorist attack is a part of the general symptom complex. 

Loyalists are characterized by: approval of Putin, confidence in the fairness of the elections (87% in this group), support for the special military operation, assessing it as successful, half as much willingness to stop the war, a more optimistic view of the economy, hostility toward the West, delegation of responsibility for the terrorist attack to the West, approval of the death penalty, and a more tolerant attitude toward torture of criminals.

Skeptics are the direct opposite of loyalists.

For example, 57% of loyalists consider the response of the security agencies a success, while 97% of skeptics interpret it as a failure.

70% of loyalists believe that Russia is successfully fighting international terrorism. Among skeptics, only 32% hold this opinion.

90% of loyalists are convinced that Putin's efforts contribute to solving the problems the country is facing, while only 35% of skeptics think the same. And this is against the background of the almost complete absence of Putin's visible actions in connection with the terrorist attack. Apparently, the public accusation of Ukraine in the terrorist attack counted as effective actions.

77% of loyalists support the special military operation and of those, nearly 60% are not willing to stop the war without achieving its objectives.

45% of skeptics are open opponents of the war, and 75% of them would support the withdrawal of troops.

72% of loyalists believe that the special military operation is developing successfully for Russia, and only 26% of skeptics think the same.

Being loyal to the authorities as a basis for feeling safe

In July 2023, after Prigozhin's mutiny, we asked how a year and a half of the special military operation had affected the safety of living conditions in the country. 14% responded that conditions had become safer, 23% responded that “the special military operation had no impact on safety at all,” and 48% felt less safe.

In February 2024, despite increased shelling and other effects of the special military operation, 81% said security in their locality had not changed.

In April 2024, after the terrible terrorist attack, 71% said that their sense of safety had not changed over the past year, and 14% each scored positions of increasing and decreasing security. In Moscow, the situation is not radically different: it has become less safe for 20% of respondents. In St. Petersburg, the figure is 24% versus 14% for the whole of Russia. 

The terrorist attack had an impact on the hierarchy of personal threats – the threat of terrorism shares the first place with potential price increases.

Concern about the threat of new terrorist attacks is equally serious in all segments of the population.

Figure 3. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024
Figure 3. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024
Figure 3. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024

Illness, man-made disasters, the threat of nuclear weapons and shelling from Ukraine are also areas of agreement between the camps.

Risks of higher prices, worsening financial situation, job loss, mobilization and security forces abuse differ so radically that it seems as if the groups live in different countries. Putin's supporters are 1.5-2.5 times more optimistic about personal threats in these areas.

When it comes to threats to Russia's security as a whole, the area of consensus is much smaller – apparently because the threats here are already at the level of the state and speak more clearly about the authorities' capacity to act, and this is an area of disagreement among political groups. 

We see similar assessments regarding the threat of nuclear weapons use, as well as epidemics and radical Islamism. In other risks, the assessments differ significantly. Here, too, Putin's opponents have a different, more threatening world around them.

Figure 4. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024
Figure 4. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024
Figure 4. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024

Importantly, the champion of threats is corruption in power (an umbrella euphemism for criticizing the government in general). The 93% overlap between recognizing the corruption threat and disapproving of Putin's performance suggests that for his opponents, the main threat to Russia is Putin's power.

The perception of events is no longer immediate, it is always politicized. If people see a threat to the country in the confrontation with NATO and the United States, 71% of them are sure that it was these dangerous institutions that ordered the terrorist attack at the Crocus Center. 

80% of Putin's opponents see the continuation of the special military operation as a threat, while the same war worries half as many Putin supporters (43%).

On most issues we see polarization of the population with stable and predictable positions.

Terrorist attack as a way to bolster the war of “civilizations” ranking

Russia has been at war against Ukraine for the third year. Society is going through a phase of repressing the war. Repression of the war does not mean that there is no war in people's lives. War is the main context of the economy, politics, and everyday life in Russia.

At the same time, the perception of war is influenced by the rest of the country's life. 

Continuous measurement of support for the special military operation during the 6 weeks of the presidential election in March 2024 showed a high sensitivity of this indicator to the context of events.

The public anti-war rhetoric of pacifist candidates Duntseva and Nadezhdin, the flash mob of the queues to sign and then the mass farewell to Navalny led to a rapid decline in support for the war.

The propaganda interpretation of the terrorist attack influenced the perception of the “special military operation”.

In the five weeks between early March and mid-April, within which the terrorist attack and its media coverage occurred, support for the special military operation soared from 46% to 61%.

The only other period when we saw nearly identical numbers was in the spring months of 2022 when a portion of Russian residents had expectations of a quick and victorious special operation against the backdrop of the Russian military offensive.

The unprecedented increase in support for the special military operation in April 2024 was triggered by the official version of the “Ukrainian trace” in the terrorist attack. In agreeing with this absurd story, one could see only an external demonstration of loyalty, if it were not for the impact on support for the war and unwillingness to stop it.

Figure 5. Source: Electoral Monitoring, ExtremeScan, January-April 2024
Figure 5. Source: Electoral Monitoring, ExtremeScan, January-April 2024
The terrorist attack turned out to be a material confirmation of Putin's myth of the civilizational existential character of war, in which the ideological enemy has no conventional constraints. 

In response to the terrorist actions of the “enemy side,” not only has support for the war grown, but the unwillingness to withdraw troops from Ukraine and move to peace talks has also increased.

Figure 6. Source: Chronicles Project, ExtremeScan, February 2023 – April 2024
Figure 6. Source: Chronicles Project, ExtremeScan, February 2023 – April 2024

How the terrorist attack in Crocus City affected Putin's rating

Support for Putin, support for the “special military operation” launched by the president personally, and attitude to the terrorist attack are phenomena that influence each other.

It seems to be a process of a kind of mutual induction, and we can observe it throughout the war.

The pompous start of the war led to a classic “Rally 'round the flag" effect and helped Putin to strengthen his ratings.

Initially, the fact that Putin personally announced the special military operation, motivated its acceptance and support. However, the effect was not sustainable enough for a prolonged war.

Putin's personal “indulgence” regarding the war has weakened considerably over the course of more than two years. With the realization that this is not a quick victorious action and Russian troops are retreating (in mid-2022), the war rating moved into a 5% corridor below the initial 60-65%.

The same drops in support subsequently occurred at moments of mobilizations, adoption of amendments to the law on military service. The duration of the war and the losses associated with it not only affect support, but also undermine the president's position.

Our experiments with question wording after the first six months of the war showed that if the words “Putin's decision” are used, it adds a maximum of 4-5% to a positive response. (For example, “How do you feel about the special military operation?” and “How do you feel about Putin's decision to start the special military operation?” show a significant bias).

Putin reduces his exposure in moments of negative developments so as not to be associated with problems. This helps mitigate possible rating losses. But it does not always help. Putin remained silent after Navalny's murder, but nevertheless immediately lost 6% of his electoral rating. It is hard to imagine a public communication that would have been able to capitalize on this tragedy for him.

Putin's image as the chief fighter against terrorism is so persistent that, despite his weak media presence in the immediate aftermath of the attack, this did not prevent most audiences from accepting his core message: no matter by whose hands the atrocity was committed, the origin of the attack was Russia's enemies – the West and Ukraine.

Putin came to power under the slogan of fighting terrorism, which awakened fear in society and a willingness to unconditionally support the “strong arm” – and this became his “power spot.”

Subsequent terrorist attacks in Russia did not sow mass doubts about the president's ability to act; on the contrary, they paradoxically led to the strengthening of his authority. The fight against terrorism, against “threats” became the main role and one of the president's merits for Russia.

Threats of terrorism and the danger of external enemies have been systematically implanted in the minds of Russians since 1999, worked effectively in the 2008 war, and came in handy in 2014 and 2022.

The attack on Crocus City was redirected into war apologetics by Putin and propaganda. They used the tragedy to repair the dwindling support for the war against Ukraine. Not only did direct references to the “Ukrainian trail” of the terrorist attack and the involvement of Western intelligence agencies work for this, but also simply the combination of content about the attack and the war.

In his speeches, Putin claimed that

“this terrorist attack may be just a link in a whole series of attempts by those who since 2014 have been at war with our country by the hands of the neo-Nazi Kyiv regime.”
“Our common duty now – of our fighting comrades at the front, of all citizens of the country – is to be together in the same ranks.”

For the loyalists, the terrorist attack was a continuation of the war by other means.

The “Western” version of the terrorist attack, as well as the shelling of Russian territory from the Ukrainian side, materialized the war, confirming its “inevitability” and its defensive nature. And thus, President Putin's moral right to continue it.

The combination of the reactive effect of cohesion in the face of the enemy, a high evaluation of Russia's effectiveness in the counterterrorist fight (59% vs. 16%) and a high evaluation of the success of the special operation (58% vs. 15%) led to a sharp increase in (verbal) support for the war (from 46% to 61% in one month). And undoubtedly locally strengthened Putin's support. We have a comparable figure: according to ExtremeScan, 55% voted for Putin in the March election and 78% approve of his efforts in April 2024. 

Among those who believe that Russia's fight against international terrorism is successful, 90% approve of Putin's efforts. Among those who do not see success in the anti-terrorist fight, half as many approve of Putin's performance (46%).

The feeling of security and safety correlates with approval of Putin's efforts and, against the backdrop of constantly broadcast external threats, is one of the foundations of loyalty to him.

There were other factors of growing support for the special military operations and for Putin that had accumulated by April: the stabilization of the economy around the military-industrial sector, the subjective feeling of financial non-deterioration of the situation, and the flow of news about the offensive of the Russian army. Intensified shelling of Russian territory also contributed to the mobilization of a certain part of society.

What's next for the war support

During the 26 months of the war, a lot of data has been accumulated on the basis of which it is possible to make assumptions about further changes in attitudes towards the war.

It is obvious that any mobilization activities that go beyond hiring “volunteers” for money – work to reduce the popularity of war.

The number of people who had or have relatives in the war has risen to 25% – which is a direct source of information about the servicemen's situation and casualties.

Compensations for breadwinners get eaten up quickly. With 10 million rubles (~USD112 000) of “coffin money”, one can buy a small apartment in a small town. Compensations and salaries do not cover the risks or costs of losing the health or life of loved ones. This was a common complaint of the participants of focus groups conducted in late fall 2023, even if they turned out to be beneficiaries of the war.

The key to changing attitudes toward the special military operation and Putin lies in the area of people's main concern.

In the fall of 2023, when faced with the choice of where to spend the state budget first, 46% of Russians chose the social sphere and only 26% chose military spending.

In the spring of 2024, the question about the events that respondents would like to see happen in the coming year showed the absolute priority of focusing on domestic social and economic spheres. Moreover, there are no differences in this position with respect to attitudes toward war.

Figure 7. Source: Chronicles Project, ExtremeScan, January 2024
Figure 7. Source: Chronicles Project, ExtremeScan, January 2024
Figure 7. Source: Chronicles Project, ExtremeScan, January 2024

Natural disasters and deterioration of housing and communal services lead to huge budget expenditures, but compensations to the affected are negligible, and people realize that money is spent on war.

Information about subjective changes in one’s financial situation over the last year is a clear predictor of almost all political attitudes.

If the financial situation has worsened, this affects support for the war: only 46% of this group view the war positively. In the "worsening" group, Putin's approval is 52% versus 80% for the rest of the respondents.

Figure 8. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024
Figure 8. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024
Figure 8. Source: ExtremeScan, April 2024

39% of law enforcement officers and special military operation participants have improved their financial situation – and have a high level of support for the special military operation.

The final figure for support for the war will depend on the balance between beneficiaries and victims of the war.

It is obvious that loyalty cannot be sustained for long on impulses like the terrorist attack or the capture of Ocheretyne. 

The anti-war discourse in the electoral campaign showed that the possibility of open rejection of war can significantly accelerate the cooling towards the war. Economic processes and inevitable humanitarian losses will erode support for the special military operation and Putin's rating.


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