How Putin Took Power. Might Be Worth Your Time
January 17, 2017
PBS Frontline doc on the first world leader our New President will be meeting with.
It’s about how an unpopular politician became a popular leader. Might have some relation to our current situation. Just sayin’.
We’re all busy, so start at 14:40. Stay till at least 22:00.
In 2000 Sergei Kovalev, then the widely respected head of the Russian organization Memorial, observed in these pages that the apartment bombings in Russia in September 1999, which killed three hundred people and wounded hundreds of others, “were a crucial moment in the unfolding of our current history. After the first shock passed, it turned out that we were living in an entirely different country….”1
The bombings, it will be recalled, were blamed on Chechen rebels and used as a pretext for Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin to launch a bloody second war against Chechnya, a republic in the Russian Federation. They also were crucial events in promoting Vladimir Putin’s takeover of the Russian presidency as Yeltsin’s anointed successor in 2000 and in ensuring his dominance over the Russian political scene ever since.
As John Dunlop points out in The Moscow Bombings of September 1999, the attacks were the equivalent for Russians of September 11, 2001, for Americans. They aroused a fear of terrorism—along with a desire for revenge against the Chechens—that Russians had not known since Stalin used the supposed terrorist threat as a pretext to launch his bloody purges of the 1930s. Yet unlike in the American case, Russian authorities have stonewalled all efforts to investigate who was behind these acts of terror and why they happened. In the words of Russian journalist Yuliya Kalinina: “The Americans several months after 11 September 2001 already knew everything—who the terrorists were and where they come from…. We in general know nothing.”
Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, seeks in his book to provide the “spade work” for an official Russian inquiry, if it ever were to be initiated (a highly doubtful proposition as long as Putin remains in power). He draws on investigative reporting by Russian journalists, accounts of Russian officials in law enforcement agencies, eyewitness testimony, and the analyses of Western journalists and academics. The evidence he provides makes an overwhelming case that Russian authorities were complicit in these horrific attacks.2
Dunlop explains why the political situation in which the terrorist attacks took place is crucial for understanding them. Yeltsin and his “Family” (an entourage that included his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin adviser Valentin Yumashev, who later married Tatyana, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and Aleksandr Voloshin, head of the presidential administration) were facing a huge crisis by the spring of 1999. Yeltsin was in ailing health and suffering from alcoholism. His popularity had fallen steeply and there was a strong possibility that his political base—a loose movement called “Unity”—would lose the parliamentary and presidential elections (respectively scheduled for December 1999 and March 2000). Yeltsin and his two daughters were facing reports charging that they had large amounts of money in secret bank accounts abroad through illegal transactions with a Swiss construction firm called Mabetex. And Berezovsky was under investigation for embezzlement when he had been running Aeroflot.
The Family’s solution to its dilemma, according to Dunlop, was a plan to destabilize Russia and possibly cancel or postpone the elections after declaring a state of emergency. In June 1999, two Western journalists, Jan Blomgren of the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and Giulietto Chiesa, the respected, longtime Moscow correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, reported that there was going to be an act of “state terrorism” in Russia. The goal would be to instill fear and panic in the population. Chiesa wrote:
With a high degree of certitude, one can say that the explosions of bombs killing innocent people are always planned by people with political minds who are interested in destabilizing the situation in a country…. It could be foreigners… but it could also be “our own people” trying to frighten the country.
These reports were followed in July by an article by the Russian journalist Aleksandr Zhilin in the national paper Moskovskaya pravda warning that there would be terrorist attacks in Moscow. Citing a leaked Kremlin document, Zhilin wrote that the purpose would be to derail Yeltsin’s political opponents, in particular Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, and the former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov. Zhilin’s information (appearing in an article entitled “Storm in Moscow”) was ignored. What he claimed appeared to be unthinkable.
Berezovsky, who fled to London in 2000 after a falling-out with Putin, was at the time, according to Dunlop, the mastermind of a plan to destabilize Russia (although not necessarily by using bombs to kill innocent people). He paid huge ransoms to extremist Chechen separatists to gain the release of Russian hostages, thereby undermining the more moderate political forces in Chechnya and encouraging an invasion of the neighboring republic of Dagestan, in August 1999, by Chechen rebel forces. According to Dunlop’s evidence, the Kremlin sponsored the incursion into Dagestan in order to provoke a conflict with Chechnya. This would provide an excuse to declare a state of emergency and postpone the elections. As numerous firsthand reports attested, the rebels were allowed into and out of Dagestan without hindrance.
The Moscow Bombings makes it clear, first of all, that the FSB had advanced knowledge that the bombings would take place. As we have seen, rumors of impending terrorist attacks had surfaced as early as June 1999. Even more significant is the fact that a respected and influential Duma deputy, Konstantin Borovoy, was told on September 9, the day of the first Moscow apartment bombing, that there was to be a terrorist attack in the city. His source was an officer of the Russian military intelligence (GRU). Borovoy transmitted this information to FSB officials serving on Yeltsin’s Security Council, but he was ignored. At least one other credible warning of an impending attack was reported to law enforcement agencies in Moscow that same day and not acted upon.
Immediately after the September 13 explosion in Moscow, Putin claimed that the people responsible for the bombings in the Dagestan town of Buinaksk and Moscow were most likely terrorists who were connected with Osama bin Laden and had been trained in Chechnya. Some days later, on September 25, FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev echoed this theme in the pages of the newspaper Moskovskii komsomolets. Responding to suggestions in the Russian press that his agency was behind the bombings, he wrote: “The organizers are not some mythical conspirators in the Kremlin, but completely concrete international terrorists dug into Chechnya.” The FSB and the Russian Procuracy later identified the masterminds of all the attacks as two Arab mercenaries, Al-Khattab and Abu Umar, who were subsequently killed in Chechnya.
But the official explanations did not quell suspicions about FSB complicity among liberal, anti-Yeltsin journalists who were already making their own investigations. Their suspicions were intensified by a strange incident that occurred on September 22 in the city of Ryazan, about a hundred miles southeast of Moscow.3 Residents of an apartment complex had reported unusual activity in the basement and observed that three people in a car with partially papered-over license plates had unloaded sacks whose contents they couldn’t make out. A professional bomb squad arrived and discovered that the sacks contained not only sugar but also explosives, including hexogen, and that a detonator was attached. After the sacks were examined and removed, they were sent by the local FSB to Moscow.
The entire apartment building was evacuated. Local authorities found the car used by the three who had planted the explosives, a white Zhiguli, in a nearby parking lot. To their astonishment the license plates were traced to the FSB. And when they apprehended two of the suspects, it turned out that they were FSB employees, who were soon released on orders from Moscow.
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.”
If this incident was in fact just an exercise, it is difficult to understand why Vladimir Rushailo, the Russian minister of interior, who headed an antiterrorism commission, knew nothing about it beforehand. Shortly before Patrushev’s announcement, Rushailo spoke publicly about the terrorist act that had been planned in Ryazan and praised the people of that city for thwarting it. As Dunlop and many others have concluded, the materials discovered in Ryazan were the makings of a real bomb, and the FSB was caught in the act. In the light of this evidence, Dunlop writes, it has become all the more likely that the September terrorist attacks were also the FSB’s work.
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.”