March 24, 2024 - 6:00pm

Some events bring a new sense of perspective. Friday’s horrific terror attack in Moscow, which at the time of writing has claimed at least 137 lives, may be one of them. Almost halfway through our current decade of tumultuous geopolitical rivalry, the grisly spectacle of terrorists gunning down innocent civilians in a concert hall seemed suddenly to transport us back to Europe’s bloody 2010s. Exactly five years after the defeat of Islamic State as a territorial entity in eastern Syria, the group had returned to smear its mark on European soil once more.

Yet the broader backdrop of the Ukraine war also shows how much our continent has changed since then. The timing of the attack — just as Russia’s government formally upgrades the Ukraine conflict from a “special military operation” to a war, and Moscow apparently plans a vast new wave of mobilisation to seize Kharkiv — provided fertile ground for conspiracising. It was only natural, in these circumstances, that more excitable pro-Ukrainian commentators would claim the atrocity was an inside job. After all, Vladimir Putin first took power in the shadow of the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings, whose interpretation as a false flag has waxed and waned in intervening years depending on Western attitudes to Moscow.

Equally, within the context of the Ukrainian GUR intelligence agency’s increasingly bold — and in Washington’s eyes counterproductive — strikes within Russia, including the ongoing incursions into Russian territory by exiled militias such as the neo-Nazi Russian Volunteer Corps, it is unsurprising that Moscow has now linked Friday’s horror to Kyiv. Russian state media has been instructed to amplify any possible links to Ukraine, including the dubious discovery of an assault rifle with Russian Volunteer Corps slogans at the scene, and Putin’s claim that the terrorists had negotiated safe passage across the Ukrainian border.

Both the Syria and Ukraine wars have been characterised by conspiratorial commentary from deranged online fandoms, and their conjunction at the Islamic State’s hands was predestined to lead down rabbit holes. Even as the Islamic State, following its familiar template, claimed responsibility via its Amaq news agency and then released conclusive proof of its role through grisly GoPro footage, the event’s horror was swallowed up by the Ukraine war’s mad logic, leaving IS almost desperately seeking credit for its own brutality.

But the most significant aspect of how far Europe has changed since the 2010s has perhaps been overlooked. The United States warned Russia that a terror attack was looming (a warning spurned by Putin as “blackmail”), and in its wake Western nations have expressed condolences towards Moscow at the loss of innocent life. In so doing, the West has seemingly recalibrated its rhetoric: the Ukraine war is placed within the bounds of diplomacy and a shared state-system, with Russia no longer a civilisational enemy but a parallel victim of jihadist terror. Rather than a war between civilisations, it is a dispute within civilisation, sharing the external threat of jihadist barbarism.

Yet Putin’s Russia, turning eastward and increasingly hostile to the West as a whole, seemingly rejects this framing. In the Kremlin’s view, Islamic State, Ukraine and the West are one and the same threat. Back in 2022, the White House expressed horror that the invasion of Ukraine would drag us back to the 19th century, when border disputes could reasonably be settled by force. In the changed circumstances of 2024, a return to a period when wars were mere territorial conflicts which could be concluded with diplomacy now seems an attractive prospect. For Islamic State, crowing at its murder of “Christians” in Moscow, Russia and the West are one undifferentiated enemy. For Putin, these shared civilisational bonds have already been dissolved.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.