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Security is paramount in Russia. How then was the concert attack able to happen?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Russia has jailed and charged four men in connection with a terrorist attack outside of Moscow, all four from the Central Asian country of Tajikistan. Officials are still working to identify the nearly 140 people killed in the attack on a crowded concert hall. The U.S. says the Islamic State is to blame, while the Kremlin has implied, without any evidence, that Ukraine is somehow responsible, charges that Ukraine vehemently denies. In a country where security is paramount, how could this attack happen? We turn now to Andrei Soldatov. He's an investigative journalist and fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis, based in London. Welcome to the program.

ANDREI SOLDATOV: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So Russia's Federal Security Services, or FSB, are supposed to be in charge of preventing attacks like this one. Can you tell us a little more about the agency and what kind of powers they have in Russia?

SOLDATOV: Well, the FSB is the major security service in the country, and also it is the main successor to the KGB. Putin once was director of the FSB. It is his longest and most beloved investment in terms of security. And this agency is also in charge of protecting his political regime. But the biggest problem with this agency is that is, first and foremost, a repressive agency. This is why punishment is more important than protection of civilians.

ELLIOTT: You would think with such a powerful surveillance network that the FSB would have been able to prevent this attack.

SOLDATOV: Well, as I said, the focus is on catching criminals and punishing them. And while they know how to do this job, all four suspects were apprehended and detained within 24 hours after the attack. But to prevent a terrorist attack, you need a completely different set of skills and capabilities. You need to act as an information gathering agency. You need to know how to share intelligence within the Russian security and intelligence community, but also with your international partners. And for that, you need a lot of trust. And this is in short demand now in Russia.

ELLIOTT: You know, by obsessing so heavily on opponents that they deem extremists at home, like the late Alexei Navalny and his followers, anti-war Russians, the LGBTQ community, did Putin and the FSB ignore actual extremist threats?

SOLDATOV: Well, of course, if you complete such a long list of terrorists and extremist organizations and - to include all the people you mentioned, and that's just a part of this list - that is a waste of your precious resources. There is also the war in Ukraine. And of course, the FSB is one of the main, if not the key, player in this war. It is the FSB which is in charge of arresting and interrogating and prosecuting prisoners of war and Ukrainian civilians in the occupied territories. And of course, in this case, the focus would be elsewhere, but not on prevention of terrorist attacks.

ELLIOTT: In a recent piece for The Guardian, you wrote that Putin has taken a hard line on terrorism and has done a lot to protect the Russian state from criticisms of its security and intelligence. How much of a blow is this to his prestige and grip on power there?

SOLDATOV: Well, the problem is that, of course, people understand that there is a big problem with security, and it goes for this terrorist attack, but also for many things. For instance, Soviet drone attacks and oil refineries which have been set on fire, like, on almost a daily basis. But to start this kind of discussion, you need to have institutions. You need to have freedom of press. You need to have a working parliament. And we don't have these things now.

ELLIOTT: Andrei Soldatov is a fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

SOLDATOV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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