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Move to Moscow

In June 1996, bringing the St. Petersburg boys with him, Putin moved to Moscow, where another former colleague had invited him to join the Yeltsin administration. Surrounding himself with loyal supporters was a shrewd strategy, or it might have been simply a matter of caution, given the hazards of Russian politics. Either way, it insulated him from potential enemies and would give him an unassailable base when he later moved to consolidate power.

At the time Putin entered the capital, Yeltsin's economic policies were failing on a grand scale, and his army had just been fought to that embarrassing standstill in Chechnya. Putin knew he could do better, and began his ascent to the pinnacle of power. First order of business: crush those rebellious Muslims once and for all—and do it right.

The years following the end of the First Chechen War had been troubled. The Chechen government's grip on its little would-be republic was weak, especially outside Grozny, a capital that lay in rubble. Areas controlled by splinter groups operating beyond the capital were expanding. The ravages of war and lack of economic opportunity left thousands of brutal, heavily armed former separatist fighters idle but still ready for violence.

Warlords outside Grozny scorned the authority of the capital and busied themselves raiding other parts of the Northern Caucasus. Kidnapping emerged as the country's principal source of income, bringing in over $200 million during the fledgling state's three-year existence. Between 1996 and 1999, more than 1,300 people were abducted in Chechnya, and in 1998 four Western hostages were executed.

Tensions rose among all segments of the public. Political violence and religious conflicts with Islamist Wahhabi forces[1] were widespread. Confrontations between the Chechen National Guard and the Islamist militias grew in intensity and frequency. In 1998, the authorities in Grozny declared a state of emergency.

Enter Vladimir Putin, a once-obscure KGB agent but now an ascendant political star to whom Yeltsin had taken a liking. First, in July 1998, Yeltsin had installed him as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB, successor to the KGB). Then, barely a year later, he appointed Putin to the office of prime minister.

In retrospect, it seems a meteoric rise. At the time, though, no one thought much of Putin. After all, he was Yeltsin's sixth prime minister in eight years; it was a dead-end job. The new guy wasn't expected to last longer than any of his predecessors.

Not for the last time, he was badly underestimated.

Becoming prime minister immediately drew Putin into the Chechen fray. But rather than see it as a hopeless mess, he saw an opportunity to prove how different he was from the indecisive Yeltsin, whom he already felt confident he could replace. But that was for later. For now, as Russian prime minister, he could engineer an ending very different from the first Chechen conflict.

The presumed trigger of the Second Chechen War was an invasion of the neighboring Republic of Dagestan in August and September 1999 by two freelance armies of about 2,000 Chechen, Dagestani, and Arab mujahideen and Wahhabist fighters. Their invasion failed, and by mid-September they had been pushed back into Chechnya.

With that, the adventure might have ended with a return to the status quo ante, but for the bombs about to explode.

The Bombings

The first of four closely spaced terrorist attacks came on September 4, 1999, in Buynaksk, Dagestan. Late that night, an enormous truck bomb leveled a barracks that housed Russian soldiers and their families. Left within the pile of burning rubble and pancaked floors were the bodies of 64 Russian men, women, and children. An Islamic Chechen claimed responsibility for the deed. Though he later changed his story, he had set the pattern of blaming for the incidents that would follow.

Five days later, bombers struck Moscow. The target was an eight-story apartment building on Guryanova Street, in a working-class neighborhood in the city's southeast. Rather than being delivered by truck, the device had been stashed on the building's ground floor, but the result was similar. The explosion brought down all eight floors and killed 94 residents as they slept.

For the Russian public, trouble in Dagestan was unremarkable. But Guryanova Street was in the heart of the homeland. It was there that the alarm first sounded. Within hours, Russian government officials all but certified that Chechen terrorists were responsible. Cities everywhere went into a state of high alert. As thousands of police fanned out to question—and in several hundred cases, arrest—anyone resembling a Chechen, residents of apartment buildings organized themselves into neighborhood watch patrols. Calls for retaliation rose from all political quarters.

Notably, instead of treating the site as an active crime scene and sifting through the ruins, Russian authorities razed 19 Guryanova Street just days after the blast and hauled the rubble away to a municipal dump. If any evidence had been gathered—and it wasn't clear that any had been—it was locked away in an FSB storehouse. Nothing was left for examination by third parties.

Four days later, on September 13, 1999, amid the near hysteria that gripped Moscow, authorities were called early in the morning to check on suspicious activity at the apartment building at 6/3 Kashirskoye Highway, on Moscow's outskirts. Finding nothing untoward, security personnel left at about 2 a.m. Somehow, inexplicably, they had failed to notice the massive bomb in the building's basement. At 5:03 a.m., the bomb detonated, and the nine-story building collapsed; 121 died.

Then came another oddity. That same morning, Gennady Seleznyov, Speaker of the Duma (Russia's lower parliamentary house), relayed to parliament a report he had just received that an apartment building in Volgodonsk, a city 700 miles south of Moscow, had been blown up the previous night.

A building had in fact been destroyed by a bomb the previous night (6/3 Kashirskoye Highway), but Seleznyov was citing an entirely different location. It seemed no more than an inconsequential blunder until three days later, when an apartment building in Volgodonsk was indeed blown up.

"How did it happen," one Duma member asked, "that you told us on Monday about a blast that didn't occur until Thursday?"

In lieu of an answer, the questioner had his microphone cut off.

To many observers, this was an early hint of conspiracy. It suggested that the bombings had been scheduled with the knowledge of the FSB and that someone in the organization had confused the order in which the disasters were to be announced to parliament.

The Volgodonsk bombing did actually happen, but not until three days later, on September 16. It, too, was a truck bomb, and it left another 17 apartment dwellers dead.

By that time, in the minds of most Russians, Chechens had been fingered as the perpetrators in all four attacks. It was an easy idea to sell. Russian antipathy toward Chechens runs deep, and it had grown stronger during the secessionist war. During that conflict, Chechen rebels had shown no reluctance about taking their fight to Russia proper and targeting civilians.

Still, a few felt uneasy with the official explanation. What, some asked, was the Chechens' motive? The war had ended in 1997 with Boris Yeltsin agreeing to Chechen autonomy. Why would the Chechens want to risk provoking the Russian government when they already had what they had fought for?

And then something very strange happened in the sleepy provincial city of Ryazan, some 120 miles southeast of Moscow.

Hypervigilance was still the order of the day, so it was no surprise that residents of 14/16 Novosyolov Street in Ryazan looked with suspicion on a white Zhiguli sedan that pulled up to park beside their apartment building on the evening of September 22. They became downright panicky when they saw two men removing several large sacks from the car's trunk and carrying them into the basement before speeding away.

The residents called the police, who discovered three 110-pound sacks wired to a detonator and timer in the basement. As they quickly evacuated the apartment building, a local FSB explosives expert was called in to disarm the device. He determined that the sacks contained RDX, an explosive powerful enough to bring down the entire building. In the meantime, all roads out of Ryazan were blocked, and a massive manhunt for the Zhiguli and its occupants began.

By the following afternoon, word of the incident in Ryazan had spread across Russia. Acting Prime Minister Putin flexed his rhetorical muscles and congratulated the residents for their vigilance. The Russian interior minister chimed in, lauding recent improvements in the readiness of security forces that had foiled the bombing.

And that might have been that, except the night of the failed bombing, two of the Ryazan suspects were apprehended. To the local authorities' astonishment, both produced FSB identification cards, and soon a call came down from FSB headquarters in Moscow that the two were to be released.

The following morning, FSB director Nikolai Patrushev appeared on television to report a wholly new version of events in Ryazan. Rather than an aborted terrorist attack, he explained, the incident at 14/16 Novosyolov Street had actually been an FSB "training exercise" to test the public's alertness. Further, he said, the sacks in the basement had contained no explosives, just sugar.

The sacks of sugar did not help the medicine go down. How was one to reconcile FSB headquarters' sacks-of-sugar claim with the local FSB's chemical analysis finding RDX? If the incident truly had been a training exercise, how was it that the local FSB branch wasn't informed ahead of time? How was it that Director Patrushev himself hadn't seen fit to mention the training exercise for a day and a half after the terrorist alert was raised? For that matter, why did the apartment building bombing spree cease after the Ryazan confusion? Surely, if the attacks had been the handiwork of Chechen terrorists, they wouldn't have stopped after one setback.

We'll probably never learn the truth, although several investigators have died trying, as we will see.

  • [1] Wahhabism is a reactionary Islamist sect originating m Saudi Arabia
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