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Vladimir Putin’s rise to the presidency of Russia was helped by the apartment bombings of 1999. Did he have a hand in them or did the Chechens do it?

2020-12-13

Vladimir Putin has been the supreme leader of Russia since early 2000. His rise to power was facilitated in 1999 by a curious coincidence (if it was really a coincidence.) In August-September 1999, shortly after Putin was selected by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, as prime minister, a series of terror bombings occurred.

The Russian apartment bombings of September 1999

On August 31, 1999, a bomb exploded in a Moscow shopping plaza, killing one person and injuring 30-40 others. It was estimated to contain perhaps 300 grams of high explosive. On September 4, 9, 13, and 16, four massive explosions destroyed apartment buildings in different cities in Russia. These bombings were well planned and highly destructive, using up to 400 kg of high explosives placed in strategic locations to flatten large apartment buildings.

Other bombings were prevented by the discovery of explosives on September 13 and other days in early September. On September 22, an incomplete bomb was discovered in a Ryazan city apartment building. This incident became famous and led to the arrest of several FSB agents.

Government investigations of the bombings

These bombings were blamed (by the government) on people known as Chechen separatists who were Islamist militants. However, an alternate theory of responsibility was advanced by several individuals in the Russian Duma (Parliament) shortly afterwards. Investigations were performed by the Russian government and by independent investigators led by Duma deputies after the Duma itself rejected two motions for an investigation.

The Russian government investigation led to the arrests and convictions of a number of individuals who were almost all ethnic Tatars, Avars, or Karachis and whose motivations were said to be revenge for Russian air raid bombings of villages in Chechnya and Dagestan. The bombings were concluded to be directed by Ibn al-Khattab, a Saudi Islamist.

Eighteen people named in Wikipedia were blamed for the planning and execution of the bombings. Some of those tried and convicted gave partial confessions. Some individuals said to be involved in the bombings were killed while resisting capture. The one said to be the leader, Ibn al-Khattab, “was poisoned by the KGB in 2002” (per Wikipedia.) Those convicted were sentenced to various terms, up to life in prison.

Independent investigation of the bombings

The independent investigation, called the Kovalyov commission after its chairman (a Duma member), was hampered by the government’s refusal to cooperate in obtaining information. An independent public commission started to work in February 2002. A lawyer and former FSB member, Mikhail Trepashkin, also began work in March 2002.

“Two key members of the Commission, both Duma members, died in apparent assassinations” per Wikipedia. Another member of the commission “was assaulted in November 2002…” and was killed in a “car accident” in November 2003.

Mikhail Trepashkin, a lawyer who was asked to investigate the case made some headway but was arrested in October 2003 “on charges of illegal arms possession” shortly before he was due to make a public presentation of his findings. He had discovered that at least one of the bombing locations (the basement of an apartment building) had been rented by an FSB officer. He also uncovered illegal sales of the explosive RDX (used in the bombings, apparently) by FSB agents.

The role of Alexander Litvinenko

Another former FSB officer, Alexander Litvinenko, was involved in the independent investigation. He first came to public attention in November 1998 when he and other FSB officers accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of the tycoon and oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko was arrested a few months later on charges of “exceeding the authority of his position.” He was acquitted in November 1999 but re-arrested and the charges finally dismissed in 2000. He defected to England and was assassinated by the FSB in November 2006.

Litvinenko wrote two books accusing the Russian FSB (and other Russian government agencies) of staging the apartment bombings and other acts of terrorism. He also accused the Russian government (headed by Putin) of ordering the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist, in October 2006. He fell ill on November 1, 2006, and was hospitalized. He died a month later, and poisoning with polonium-210 was shown to be the cause. The British authorities accused a Russian national of slipping the polonium into his tea when they met in a public restaurant.

The Ryazan incident, a bombing that was prevented– or was it a security exercise?

One of the most contentious incidents that was investigated was called the “Ryazan incident.” In this case, a bombing was apparently foiled by a citizen who noticed three people carrying sacks into the basement of an apartment building. Police who arrived at the scene later that evening found three large sacks of white powder in the basement, attached to a detonator and a timing device.

The head of the local bomb squad disassembled the bomb and tested the sacks with a gas analyzer, which detected RDX (also known as hexogen) vapors. The timer was set to go off the next morning at 5:30 AM. Three people identified from sketches as suspects were arrested and produced FSB identification cards. “They were soon released on orders from Moscow.”

The police evacuated the building and the entire city of Ryazan (about a half-million people) was in an uproar by the next morning. The FSB and federal government at first said the incident had been a real threat. After the three suspects were identified, however, the officials changed their stories– they described the incident as “security training.”

The bomb squad leader changed his story and said that a gas analyzer had not been used. He said that the substance in the sacks was actually sugar. The leader later said that a litmus paper-like test was used instead, but the test had been a false positive because his hands had been contaminated with RDX that he had used the day before.

The Volgodonsk bombing– was it predicted in the Duma?

Another confusing incident was the announcement in the Duma on September 13 (shortly after the second Moscow explosion.) The Duma speaker stated that he had just received a report that an apartment building in the city of Volgodonsk was blown up “last night.” The Volgodonsk bombing didn’t occur until September 16. Alexander Litvinenko, an FSB agent who fled Russia and became a journalist in London, said that an FSB officer had given the Duma speaker a note with the information– and that the FSB had mixed up the order of the explosions.

Putin comes to the presidency after the bombings.

The apartment bombings occurred during a period of heightened tensions in Russia and after a prolonged, severe depression that left the economy 40% smaller than it had been when the USSR was dissolved ten years earlier. Vladimir Putin, as prime minister, campaigned for the presidency on a platform of war against Chechnya in retaliation for the bombings.

Internally, Putin promised protection from criminal prosecution for Boris Yeltsin and his family. He also made an informal pact with the so-called “oligarchs” that they could keep their acquisitions if they left the political arena to him.

There was no real independent investigation of the bombings. They were convenient for Vladimir Putin, and they occurred in a country where the FSB had more control than the FBI did in the US in the 1950s. We cannot know for sure, but the bombings appear to have been too convenient and too easy for the FSB to commit and blame on Chechen separatists.

The attempts at independent investigation were prevented by the Russian government, which refused to release any information to members of their own administration (the Duma.) A number of the investigators were killed in assassinations and “accidents.” The most famous victims were Alexander Litvinenko, who was assassinated in England with polonium, and Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who was openly murdered after many attempts.

A major lawyer who spearheaded the investigation was arrested and jailed just before he was to present the findings of his research. His cause received wide publicity and sympathy in the West. He was nearly killed in prison by being transported with tuberculosis patients and being denied treatment for his asthma. He survived four years of maltreatment in prison, was released in 2007, and apparently still works against Putin as a free man in Russia.

Vladimir Putin has been in supreme power in Russia since 2000. The Russian economy benefitted greatly from increases in the price of oil afterwards (oil and gas are the major exports.) Russian democracy has been eliminated through brutal repression and killings of persistent opponents.

Russia has spread disinformation in the US since the 1950s, but its efforts have been much more sophisticated, persistent, and better financed since Putin has been president. The Russians have also hacked into American computers, both commercial and government. Just today, a Russian hack into the Treasury Department was announced.

Read the details in Wikipedia, starting with their chapter called “Russian apartment bombings.”

In our next blog post, we will try to discuss Russian efforts to spread disinformation and chaos, and to hack into American computers, in the US over the last twenty years.

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