After two terror attacks hit Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, Russian officials did not express condolences or compassion for those affected by the events. Instead, while most countries showed their solidarity with Belgium, Russia used the tragedy to boost its image as a potential regional hegemon, both at home and abroad.
Some Russian officials described the attacks as evidence of Europe’s failure to effectively fight international terrorism. Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia’s State Duma, wrote on Twitter: “While [NATO Secretary General Jens] Stoltenberg…fights the imaginary ‘Russian threat’ and sends troops to Latvia, people are being blown up in Brussels right under his nose.”
In a statement about the Brussels attack, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggested the West had no one to blame but itself. “You must not divide terrorists into good and bad, you must not support them in the Middle East and the North Caucasus and then think that they won’t come to another part of the planet,” she said. Zakharova’s hypocrisy on Brussels was especially disturbing, in light of the tragedy that happened on October 31, 2015, when a Russian plane carrying 224 people, the vast majority of whom were Russian citizens, was brought down in the Sinai peninsula by an ISIS affiliate. At the time, Zakharova said nothing about how Russian foreign policy in Syria might have driven the militants to carry out the attack.
Others claimed Europe was unable to defeat terrorism on her own, and that only strategic partnership with Russia could solve the problem. State Duma deputy, Vladimir Vasilyev, praised Russian counterterrorism efforts, saying he could not understand why European decision makers did not want to learn from Russia’s success.
Maria Katasonova, youth policy coordinator for the pro-Kremlin National Liberation Movement, called on European decision makers “to stop frightening everyone with an imaginary Russian threat and to unite with Russia against the real threat that everyone faces.” Katasonova is an assistant to Yevgeny Fyodorov, a Russian politician and noted anti-Western conspiracy theorist.
Many Moscovites brought flowers to the Belgian embassy on the day of the attacks. Some expressed genuine solidarity with the victims and their families. Others, however, reproached Europe for its deteriorating values and focus on false threats. “Perhaps, Europeans need to focus on their security, not on gay marriages,” said one passer-by interviewed by TV Rain. He continued, “In the past five to ten years, the shift in European values did not bring anything good.”
These comments do not come as a surprise. According to the Human Rights Watch report, “License to Harm,” the Kremlin has “effectively legalized discrimination against LGBT people and cast them as second-class citizens.” Russian State TV has long demonized LGBTQ communities and blamed the West for perverting traditional marriage and family values.
Official Russian responses to the Brussels attacks highlight Russia’s need to constantly reaffirm its strategic value and military strength on the international stage. Russia’s goal is not, however, to convince Western countries to cooperate with it in joint counterterrorism efforts. Rather, it is hoping to boost its image of military strength and righteousness. By juxtaposing its own (questionable) success in Syria with Europe’s failure in fighting terrorism, Russian is also hoping to strengthen a nationalistic narrative and anti-Western rhetoric at home.
Politicizing a tragedy is a disgraceful way for any nation to reaffirm or boost its image.