The Moscow apartment bombings of 1999 and the curious rise of Vladimir Putin

The Moscow apartment bombings of 1999 and the curious rise of Vladimir Putin

It’s disturbing but predictable that, as the Ukraine crisis continues to unfold, many Americans are getting what amounts to their first “crash course” on Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of the many remarkable consequences of the Trump administration was the degree to which the views of Republican rank-and-file voters were influenced by Trump’s solicitous, almost groveling behavior toward Putin, a bizarre non sequitur that must have drawn incredible consternation from those in the U.S. intelligence community and others intimately familiar with Putin’s actual history. Two polls in June of last year revealed Republicans had higher approval of Putin than President Biden, with roughly one in five viewing him “favorably” in 2017. 

But despite what they may think they “know” from our sporadic, reactive, and superficial news media, the reality is that most Americans know next to nothing about Putin. Perhaps if they were aware that credible historians and journalists believe Putin was possibly complicit in the massacre of hundreds of his own citizens in order to facilitate his rise to power, they might be prompted to reevaluate these snapshot perceptions.

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Either way, it seems like an opportune time for a refresher course on the ascent to power of an individual who has his nuclear missiles on a hair-trigger, all of them aimed at our homes and families right now. The following is a complex, somewhat byzantine narrative that contains—as many such narratives do— an equally byzantine cast of characters and organizations. It is primarily based on unofficial sources, mostly investigative journalists and authors whose access to the evidence is by default secondhand or circumstantial, and its conclusions have been alternatively affirmed and disputed. As noted below, the U.S. government has not confirmed or refuted its conclusions: Despite its recent belligerence, Russia’s interests remain critical strategic considerations for the U.S. long into the future. 

The leadership of post-Soviet Russia was a hot mess in the summer of 1999. Plagued by credible reports of widespread corruption and accused of stashing his own and his family’s ill-gotten money in secret foreign bank accounts, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was taking refuge in the bottle, this time with an unparalleled vengeance. His “Unity” political movement appeared to be careening toward defeat in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. And according to John B. Dunlop, now a senior emeritus fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Moscow Bombings of September 1999, Yeltsin was desperately searching for a game-changer, something drastic to effect a reversal of his vertiginous fortunes. He had few cards to play but eventually settled on one: finding a pretext to force either the cancellation of the elections themselves or creating a national emergency that would suddenly rally the Russian people to his side.

Indeed, he had very few cards left. Still, one of them was the malleability of Russian nationalism, specifically a historical ethnic aversion and suspicion of the independence-minded Chechen people, with whom the Russian Federation had been in a state of war throughout the mid-1990s. The other was a friend with unlimited resources, the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. According to Dunlop, Berezovsky was tasked by Yeltsin to pay enormous ransoms to Chechen separatists who had lately, in their long-standing efforts to establish an independent Chechnya, kidnapped several Russian nationals. As predicted, these payments had the desired “reverse” effect: not of relaxing tensions between Chechnya and Russia but rather motivating the same separatists to invade neighboring Dagestan in August of 1999.

Thus, according to Dunlop, a Kremlin-sponsored “national emergency” was conceived: a potential incursion by Chechnya which might justify postponing the looming elections which Yeltsin feared. Yeltsin had no illusions about his own unpopularity but reasoned that if his own political opponents could be discredited, a hand-picked successor could be maneuvered into office, and Yeltsin (along with his family and associates) would be spared prosecution. As reported by Amy Knight, reviewing Dunlop’s analysis for the New York Review of Books, the plan went very smoothly, up to a point, with the “[Chechen] rebels allowed into and out of Dagestan without hindrance.”

A central player in Yeltsin’s scheme (in Dunlop’s thesis) was a former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin. As Knight notes, prior to Sep. 1999, Putin—then head of the KGB’s renamed successor, the FSB—was still largely unknown to the Russian people. Having demonstrated his loyalty to Yeltsin by removing prosecutors who had pursued corruption investigations against him, Putin was elevated by Yeltsin to the post of prime minister in August of that year. He was chosen to be the “friendly successor.”

But the Dagestan “invasion” by Chechnyan separatists failed to galvanize public opinion. Russians apparently didn’t particularly care that much about Dagestan, at least not enough to get behind a war involving Russian lives. As Knight observes (and she cites Dunlop’s sources here), something more was needed to jolt the public, to get them behind Putin. Something akin to what we would call a “9/11 moment” in the United States, for example:

In order for the Family’s “operation successor” to succeed, something would have to occur to boost Putin’s public image and demonstrate his capacity for strong leadership. … As Dunlop’s sources said, more violence was needed to justify a war against Chechnya, which would unite people around the new prime minister.

As David Satter, former senior fellow for the Hudson Institute wrote in 2016, what followed, in September 1999 was a series of four apartment complex bombings in Moscow, Buynaksk, and Volgodonsk, that killed 300 Russian citizens and wounded hundreds more. According to Dunlop’s research (as summarized by Knight), multiple sources point to the FSB’s prior knowledge of the coming attacks, including statements made by Russian Duma members made before the attacks themselves, based on information provided by Russian military intelligence (GRU). So if the FSB (then led by Putin protege and longtime trusted friend Nikolai Patrushev) knew about the attacks ahead of time, there is little question that Vladimir Putin did. 

But the available evidence, according to multiple investigators and journalists who have reviewed the records and testimony available, suggests an even more sinister conclusion. As Satter writes: 

I believe that Vladimir Putin came to power as the result of an act of terror committed against his own people. The evidence is overwhelming that the apartment-house bombings in 1999 in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk, which provided a pretext for the second Chechen war and catapulted Putin into the presidency, were carried out by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

The evidence for that assertion is persuasive, especially bolstered by an event that occurred two weeks later, on Sept. 22, 1999, in the city of Ryazan, southeast of Moscow. Residents of an apartment complex observed several individuals in a white Zhiguli sedan (bearing partially obscured license plates) removing what appeared to be three 110-pound sacks of material, and carrying them into the complex’s basement. The local FSB and regular police found explosive materials and detonators in the sacks, including traces of the chemical RDX or “hexogen.” This was the same material found in the other apartment bombs. Tightly regulated in Russia, the only source of hexogen was through secure Russian governmental sources.

But there was another, more obvious clue: the license plate on the vehicle used by those removing these materials turned out to be traced (through vigilant local law enforcement efforts) back to the FSB, and when the local police apprehended the men that same evening through standard police vehicle checks, it turned out that they were FSB employees. Apparently, the KGB successor organization had been caught red-handed planting another bomb. As Knight reports, the FSB immediately went into denial mode:

After a day and a half of silence, Patrushev announced on television that the apparent bomb had been part of a “training exercise” and that the sacks contained only sugar. The local Ryazan FSB and regular police, who had been combing the city for more explosives, expressed outrage. In the words of one police official: “Our preliminary tests showed the presence of explosives. … As far as we were concerned, the danger was real.”

The FSB then magnified its apparent indiscretion by publicly reframing it as a “training exercise.” But Russia’s interior minister—who would have known of any “training exercise”—had already publicly referred to the Ryazan bombing attempt as a thwarted “terrorist attack.” Accordingly, Dunlop and others reasonably conclude, as Knight puts it, that “the materials discovered in Ryazan were the makings of a real bomb, and the FSB was caught in the act.” Meanwhile, the FSB was loudly and publicly blaming the bombings on “international terrorists dug into Chechnya.” Two Arab mercenaries were identified as its “masterminds,” but both were ultimately—and perhaps conveniently—killed in Chechnya.

After Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31, 1999, Putin became acting president. He was formally elected in Mar. 2000, riding a wave of anti-Chechen sentiment he helped to stoke after these bombings. As Knight notes, it was a remarkably serendipitous election for Putin:

As it turned out, there was no need to cancel the elections, because the Russian people rallied around Putin and his vows to seek revenge against ethnic Chechens. Russian troops began invading Chechnya on October 1. His approval ratings soared: from 31 percent in mid-August to 78 percent in November. As Dunlop notes: “The continuing upward movement in Putin’s rating was accompanied by an increase in the hatred, which soon became incandescent, on the part of ethnic Russians for Chechens.”

As Satter testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2017, the newly elected President Putin’s “first act was to guarantee Yeltsin immunity from prosecution.” Meanwhile, Putin began to gin up public opinion against the Chechens. As reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in 2019:

On Sep. 23, Putin asserted terrorists in Chechnya were to blame and ordered a massive air campaign within the North Caucasus region. When asked a day later about the campaign targeting what he called terrorists, Putin responded with the phrase that inaugurated his rise to preeminence.

“We will pursue them everywhere,” he said, using a crude slang expression. “Excuse me for saying so: We’ll catch them in the toilet. We’ll wipe them out in the outhouse.”

The statement became a Putin catchphrase, and set the tone for the 20 years of rule that followed.

Multiple arrests of individuals purportedly involved in the bombings took place in the ensuing months. “Trials” were held for each separate bombing, but as Knight observes, “The trials of those accused of taking part in the Moscow and Volgodonsk plots were closed, so the evidence against the alleged terrorists was never made public.” The other trial was public, but Knight notes (citing Dunlop’s investigation) that the confessions of the alleged perpetrators may have been coerced through torture.

Attempts by independent journalists and vying Russian political parties to investigate the true nature of these bombings met with stiff resistance by the now Putin-dominated Unity Party. (Berezovsky himself funded an effort by former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko to investigate the bombings; a book titled Blowing Up Russia was the outcome. It was published one year after Litvinenko died from radioactive poisoning.) As Satter observes, Litvinenko was one of several Russian journalists who attempted to investigate the matter, only to end up mysteriously murdered:

Russian human-rights defenders Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko also worked to shed light on the apartment bombings. But all of them were murdered between 2003 and 2006.

Satter himself requested, via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), information from the U.S. government (including the CIA) regarding their knowledge about the bombings. In an article written for the National Review in 2017, he described the response he received:

The response from the CIA was unhelpful. Mary E. Wilson, an acting information-review officer, said that the CIA could not even acknowledge the existence of records on the 1999 Russian apartment bombings or the purported training exercise in Ryazan. To do so would reveal activities, sources, or methods as well as “very specific aspects of the Agency’s intelligence interest, or lack thereof, in the Russian bombings.”

For his part, Putin continues to deny that the FSB was ever involved in planning the bombings at all. As Knight notes, however, assuming the FSB was involved, “it is inconceivable that it would have been done without the sanction of Putin.” The relationship between the prime minister of 1999 and his protege at FSB was well-established. As Knight observes:

Yeltsin wrote in his memoirs Midnight Diaries that after Putin was appointed prime minister in August 1999, “Putin turned to me and requested absolute power…to coordinate all power structures.” This of course would have included the FSB. Furthermore FSB chief Patrushev was a very trusted longtime ally of Putin’s from St. Petersburg. Their ties dated back to 1975, when both joined the KGB in what was then Leningrad and worked together in the counterintelligence department. When Putin took over the FSB in July 1998, Patrushev served as his deputy, assuming Putin’s post after he became prime minister. Asked in an interview for First Person who he especially trusted, Putin named, among a few others, Patrushev.

As veteran journalist/war correspondent Scott Anderson, in his comprehensive 2017 reporting on the bombings for GQ, observed, one of the singular aspects of the story is how reticent Western nations are to provide their own intelligence findings about it. From the perspective of continued engagement with Russia that position makes some degree of realpolitik sense: such an accusation—backed up with credible evidence—risks permanently imperiling ongoing and future relationships to the Russian Federation. Still, sticky questions left unattended for geopolitical reasons tend to be resolved, one way or another, given the passage of time. Anderson writes:

It is a riddle that lies at the very heart of the modern Russian state, one that remains unsolved to this day. In the awful events of September 1999, did Russia find its avenging angel in Vladimir Putin, the proverbial man of action who crushed his nation’s attackers and led his people out of a time of crisis? Or was that crisis actually manufactured to benefit Putin, a scheme by Russia’s secret police to bring one of their own to power? What makes this question important is that absent the bombings of September 1999 and all that transpired as a result, it is hard to conceive of any scenario whereby Putin would hold the position he enjoys today: a player on the global stage, a ruler of one of the most powerful nations on earth.

With Russia now seemingly bent on the total subjugation of Ukraine, and with all Western strategic interests suddenly thrust into a critical crossroads, it still appears that only time will determine whether the U.S. intelligence community sees fit to open up its files.

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