Why Did Putin Wait So Long to Blame ISIS for Jet Crash?

The Kremlin batted away any suggestion of ISIS bringing down the plane until Tuesday, when it suddenly said it found explosive residue—and stepped up bombing targets in Syria.

Alexei Nikolskyi/Reuters

MOSCOW — It took Russian security agencies almost two weeks to find what they say is clear evidence of an ISIS bomb aboard Metrojet flight 9268, which crashed on Oct. 31, killing all 224 aboard.

A few hours after Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama shook hands in Turkey and discussed a potential joint response to the crisis in Syria, Putin arrived in his office in the Kremlin and sat down with members of his security council on Tuesday. The head of the Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov, reported to Putin that the FSB had found explosive residue on parts of the Airbus 321 and on passengers’ luggage.

The participants at the table, including Putin himself, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Foreign Intelligence Service Director Mikhail Fradkov, looked tragic.

“The examination showed that all these objects found traces of foreign-made explosives,” Bortnikov said, adding there would be a $50 million reward for information about the organizers of the terrorist attack. (Egyptian authorities reportedly arrested two Sharm el-Sheikh airport staff on the same day.)

The Kremlin was the last one to say there was a terrorist attack on the Russian plane. Statements by the British government and U.S. intelligence officials were waved away by Russian officials as too preliminary and incompetent. Just a week ago, Putin asked the West to stop jumping to any conclusions about a bomb on the plane.

“The Kremlin postponed the news about explosives for as long as it could, as it was ultimately unfortunate and unpleasant—in fact, it was the first time in Putin’s Russia that somebody blew up a plane outside of the country’s borders,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, a political analyst and professor at the Higher School of Economics, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.

On Tuesday many in Russia were wondering why it took Putin so long to confirm that terrorists brought down the plane. And also: Who to blame for that terrorist attack? Russian independent observers speculated about the Kremlin waiting for the best moment to break the scary bomb news to Russians. This week it was delivered in a package with reports about Putin being an important international player and Russia helping the “useless West” in the global war on terror.

Ryzhkov said he believed that before bombing Syria, the Kremlin and especially the security council members were supposed to analyze all potential risks and threats to Russian people in the region. Some experts suggested that the Kremlin had deliberately postponed the news of the terrorist bomb planted on the plane. Tuesday’s meeting at the Kremlin, broadcast on Russian television, “fit perfectly into the tendency of the last few days,” Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, told Gazeta.ru. Once again, it appears a Russian leader has calculated every step and public reaction.

On Tuesday evening, Putin arrived at the Defense Ministry to announce that now Russia’s plan was to double the number of airstrikes in Syria. (Already, long-range bombers struck targets in Syria in the greatest bombing run in decades.) The Russian president also ordered Russia’s navy to work with France on joint military and intelligence operations.

“By conducting military missions in Syria, you are protecting Russia and her citizens,” Putin told defense ministry commanders. “Our air campaign in Syria must not only be continued, it must be boosted, in such a way that the criminals are made aware that retribution is inevitable.”

Few in Moscow appeared to agree with Putin, however. On Tuesday morning, Echo of Moscow radio conducted a survey asking listeners whether Russia should continue bombing Syria in response to the terrorist attacks on the plane and in Paris. Sixty-three percent said Russia should stop bombing Syria.

“Syria’s war is not our war; Russia’s human losses as a result of that war are unacceptable,” Professor Ryzhkov told TV Tsentr this week.

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According to Russia’s banking chief, German Gref, Russia is facing its worst economic crisis in 20 years. Can Putin really afford to participate in the global war on terror in such a large-scale crisis?

“I doubt that Russia could handle another war,” Ryzhkov told The Daily Beast. “Russia has been fighting terrorist groups on its own territory in the northern Caucusus and also took on the responsibility of helping to provide security in Central Asian countries, on the border with Afghanistan. A third front is too much for Russia. Besides, Putin should not forget that the USSR fell apart as a result of the long and expensive war the Soviet army fought in Afghanistan.”