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Putin's leadership challenges are starting to mount up

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We turn to Russia, where Vladimir Putin bills himself as the provider of security and stability in the country. But the recent terror attack in Moscow is the latest in a series of events that directly challenge the Russian leader's narrative. For more, we're joined now by NPR's Greg Myre in Washington. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so as more information has been emerging about this mass shooting in Moscow, why is Putin blaming Ukraine?

MYRE: Yeah. Putin has modified his stance just a bit. He's now saying that radical Islamists carried out the mass shooting last Friday at this concert hall on the edge of Moscow, but he continues to suggest, without evidence, that Ukraine likely orchestrated the attack, possibly with help from the U.S. And this goes against all the available evidence. An Islamic State faction, ISIS-K, is claiming responsibility and has released videos. Ukraine and the U.S. deny involvement. And I spoke about this with Dan Hoffman, a former CIA station chief in Moscow. He says this is the kind of misinformation he expects from Putin and the main security service, the FSB.

DANIEL HOFFMAN: Yeah, I think we have to distinguish between Putin's propaganda and accusing Ukraine of this terrorist attack, when, in fact, he does know. And so I'm quite sure the FSB is mounting a full-court press to make sure that there are not follow-on attacks. He absolutely knows what happened.

CHANG: I mean, the U.S. did warn Russia about a possible attack - right? - and said the attack could be in Moscow at a concert. Why wasn't Russia prepared?

MYRE: Yeah. The head of the FSB has acknowledged that the U.S. did pass on, as he says, general information, and he says Russia took this into account. But he also said today that he believes that Ukraine and - believes Ukraine, the U.S. and possibly other Western countries orchestrated this shooting. And this attack really is a blow for Putin, whose government doesn't tolerate opposition - even peaceful opposition.

And we should note that the U.S. provided Iran with a similar intelligence warning in advance of a bombing claimed by ISIS-K that killed nearly a hundred people in January. In both cases, you just - you have to wonder how seriously Iran and Russia took this information because it came from the U.S., an archrival.

CHANG: Huh. But still, Greg, I mean, if this is just one - a one-time attack, like, does it pose any real threat to Putin's grip on Russia, you think?

MYRE: Ailsa, the short answer is no. Russia just had a presidential election. Putin got 80% of the vote, and this wasn't really an exercise in democracy. It was about demonstrating there's really no one there to challenge him. Still, this terror attack is one of several events that have been chipping away at Putin's reputation as this invincible strongman. The war in Ukraine grinds on. We saw last year this mercenary leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, once close to Putin, launch an uprising. He then died in a plane crash. NATO has added two new countries. So here again is Dan Hoffman.

HOFFMAN: One of the things that Putin offered his people was stability and order. He's kind of broken that promise multiple times. That's not a good look for Russia or for the security services.

CHANG: Huh. Well, I wonder, can we tell if this terror attack is likely to - I don't know - reshape Russia's operations in Ukraine?

MYRE: Well, it's coming at a moment when Russia already is carrying out some of its heaviest airstrikes of the war in Ukraine, and it's trying to take out Ukraine's energy grid again. Ukraine's leaders say openly that they desperately need to replenish and strengthen the country's air defenses, and the efforts by the Biden administration to do just that have been stalled in Congress.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you so much, Greg.

MYRE: Sure thing, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.