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Russia's Reaction to the 'Charlie Hebdo' Attacks and What it Says About Putin

Russia's media, government, and population had conflicting and sometimes contradictory reactions to the terror attacks in Paris last week.
Image via AP/Pavel Golovkin

Gestures of support came from all around the world last week after the Paris terrorist attacks that killed 17 people. On Sunday, more than 40 world leaders marched in the city to honor the victims and support freedom of speech. This was not without controversy, however, as it was noted that press freedom is still restrained in some of the countries that were represented.

Russia's behavior has also been much commented upon. There was criticism, especially from media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, of the fact that a Russian official — Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — dared showing up at the event. And a variety of reactions erupted from different parts of Russian society.


Vladimir Putin's spokesman told the state-run Russian news agency TASS: "Due to the tragic events in Paris where many people were killed as a result of the terrorist act, President Putin expresses condolences to relatives and all residents of Paris and the French people."

He added that Moscow strongly condemned terrorism in all its manifestations and that no terrorist acts could be justified.

Some Russian media were supportive of Charlie Hebdo. Novaya Gazeta, a liberal opposition paper, ran with a front page stating: "We are Charlie Hebdo." The editorial team of the leading Echo of Moscow radio station posed with "Je suis Charlie" T-shirts and posted the picture on Twitter.

Video emerges of pro-gun group re-enacting 'Charlie Hebdo' massacre. Read more here.

Even the editor-in-chief of the state-funded news channel Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, tweeted that Russia and the West would be "on the same side of the barricade when World War Three breaks out" (which, in her opinion, is imminent).

Others, however, did not have such kind words. Theories of conspiracy fomented by America or Israel were popular with some publications and channels.

On Monday the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda led with a "Did the Americans plan the Paris terrorist attacks?" headline, claiming the Americans probably reacted to French President François Hollande's recent wish to soften sanctions against Russia.


The Russian channel Life News spread the same far-fetched idea. During an interview, a political expert said that thinking the reason behind the attacks were just the caricatures of the Prophet was "ridiculous" and claimed that it is "profitable" for the US to "spread chaos in Europe, to stifle the sounds minds that call for the re-establishment of a cooperation with Russia."

Some enlightened observers even went as far as denouncing a conspiracy fomented by Israel. According to ex-general and political expert Leonid Ivashov, who said on 9TV: "Today Europe, for a set of different reasons, is setting itself against Israel. For example, Israel's and the US's actions in the Middle East are sending flows of refugees to their countries. These blows are the result of Europe's discontent with Israel and the US and its recognition of Palestine as an independent state."

Disagreements also blew up among the Russian people.

While people gathered in front of the French embassy to lay flowers to honor the victims, Russian Orthodox activists rallied in the same place, displaying banners that read: "Blasphemers from France horribly slurred Jesus Christ — and received a just punishment" and "The responsibility for the tragedy lies with the French government. They did not protect the feelings of believers."

Two people were also reportedly arrested for holding banners reading "Je suis Charlie" on a main square in Moscow.


In Moscow, Russian authorities arrested people holding up — Ukraine Reporter (@StateOfUkraine)January 10, 2015

Russia's Council of Muftis — the country's main Muslim leadership organization — also referred to a "sin of provocation," although it did condemn terrorism.

Meanwhile, on Monday a Moscow mosque was vandalized and obscenities spray-painted on its walls, while a group of 12 people stormed into another one on Wednesday, calling for a march to the French Embassy, presumably to contest Charlie Hebdo's publications.

Yet perhaps the contradictions in the Russian reaction are reflective of the Kremlin's slightly confusing foreign policy.

Belgium on alert after deadly raid on suspected terror cell 'planning attacks on police.' Read more here.

As a matter of fact, in spite of his usual anti-Western attitude, the Moscow Times noted that Putin was "one of the very first foreign dignitaries to offer sympathy" to the French government and people.

To try and make sense of the Russian reaction to events in Paris, VICE News spoke to Dr. Igor Sutyagin, who works for the Royal United Services Institute and is a specialist on Russian foreign policy.

VICE News: How can you describe Putin's response to the Paris attacks last week?
Igor Sutyagin: He is sending two different messages in his discourse. The first one is the message for the West, in which he supports the fight against terrorism and blames the attackers for what they did.


Domestically, it's just the opposite: the message spread by the official Russian media is that the attacks were absolutely right and justified. This idea is largely supported by Putin's government and Putin's domestic propaganda machine. There are two clearly distinct messages here. So technically, it's not right to say that he "supports" the West.

How would you qualify this double-sided attitude then?
The problem with Putin is that some of his convictions are remainders of the Soviet times. The universal belief of the KGB [where Putin used to work] was that it's possible to isolate domestic information, to prevent it from leaking to the West. He thinks the message he's sending nationally will go unnoticed in the West. He believes that it is possible to show a different face to them and that they'll buy it. But he misses the very important fact that his domestic propaganda is easily readable by the West.

It was announced on Tuesday that Putin would not attend the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz's liberation in Poland. How can this gesture be read?
The fact that he won't turn up at the Auschwitz anniversary is a sign of fear: he is afraid that he might end up being isolated in the same way as he was in Brisbane. But this attitude only contributes to Russia's isolation.

The excuse for his absence is the lack of an official, diplomatic invitation. But there wasn't one for anybody, because this is not a state-run event. It is organized by the museum. It's his usual move: he tries to turn things upside down.

What message do you think Putin is trying to send to the West by saying he condemns the terrorist attacks? Is it a sign that he wants to improve their relationship?
Again, he does not say that passionately. His propaganda machine continues to add fuel to the fire in the meantime. I don't think his intention is to make the situation better. It is more an attempt to have sanctions removed and thus to resolve some domestic problems — with the economy for example — which are partly caused by them. He is ready to anything that is necessary for that.

Do you think he might succeed and that the West will eventually soften up?
He probably won't succeed with this attempt, but one should remember that the West is not solid. All sorts of businesses are affected and have already started raising their voice to lift the sanctions because it creates difficulties. Danger and threats always feel remote, but profit making is about today. That could be a potential source of success for Putin.