Commentary Magazine


A Revealing Skepticism about the Putin Assassination Plot

Russia faces a tense presidential election. The Russian people’s complaints about the lack of promised freedoms grow louder. An apartment building collapses after an explosion. A plot to carry out terrorism in Russian population centers and even against the president himself is uncovered.

The year is… 2012. This morning, in fact. But it bears a peculiar resemblance to the circumstances surrounding Vladimir Putin’s election in 2000 and the election of his successor in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev. The most noticeable difference today is probably the cynicism with which the news has been greeted. Miriam Elder reports:

The Russian and Ukrainian special services have foiled a plot to assassinate Vladimir Putin immediately after Russia’s presidential election next Sunday, state television reported.

Channel One said several men who were arrested in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa in January had been dispatched to kill Putin by the Chechen rebel Doku Umarov, the leader of Russia’s separatist Islamist movement….

It was unclear why news of the arrests was not released sooner, but the announcement – which was made just one week ahead of an election that is expected to sweep Putin back into the Kremlin despite growing protests against his rule – was treated with suspicion in liberal circles in Moscow.

“Do I understand correctly that no one believes in the assassination attempt on Putin?” Danila Lindele, a leader of the opposition Blue Bucket movement, wrote on Twitter.

Another Russian user wrote: “It’s better to pretend we believe it. Or else they’ll start blowing up homes again.”

In fact, later this morning news broke that a residential building collapsed in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan after what seems to be a gas explosion. Shaun Walker, the Independent’s Moscow correspondent, looked into it and tweeted: “FSB ‘not excluding’ that Astrakhan explosion was a terrorist act. It looked like gas. Let’s hope so. If not this is all eerily familiar….”

He was alluding to the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia that boosted Putin, the newly designated successor to Boris Yeltsin, and was used to justify the Second Chechen War. Putin has been accused of having the FSB carry out the bombings and blame them on Chechen terrorists. The evidence for that claim is mostly circumstantial, but it nonetheless has dogged Putin throughout his tenure.

It has also become a symbol of the mistrust and suspicion Putin has earned, especially from younger Russians not aligned with pro-Kremlin youth groups and with the independent press. Still, there are reasons for skepticism about this latest alleged plot. Ben Aris writes at Business New Europe that he flat-out doesn’t believe it. Aris says the evidence found constitutes intent, perhaps, but not serious planning, and the suspects were apprehended weeks ago. The actual plan, he writes, doesn’t make too much sense either:

The stated plan was to plant mines along Kutuzovsky prospekt and detonate them as Putin’s convoy passes on his way to work. But there are a string of problems with this too. I used to live on Kutuzovsky and everyday as Putin drove past, the street would fill up with beefy FSB officers every 100 metres or so along the route to check the road. Secondly, Kutuzovsky is an eight-lane road and Putin’s entourage drives extremely fast down the middle as all traffic is cleared out of the way. A bomb that could reach and catch Putin’s car (which is armoured) and actually destroy it would have to be massive and very hard to hide – certainly they would have to be more powerful than to simply “tear apart a truck” that a security officer told Russia’s First Channel.

Still, even this is all possible. But what makes this alleged attack most unlikely is that the style of the whole plan is totally out of keeping with all the other Chechen attacks, which can be divided into two types: hostage taking and bomb attacks.

That may be true, but there are exceptions. The alleged planned attack on the 2006 G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg involved rockets, and was a much more serious assassination attempt with almost no chance of success (and Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who was apparently killed by Russian security forces after the plot was uncovered and tracked, seemed to know this—an extensive “plan B” was sketched out).

The most likely scenario here is that the plot was real, but not designed by Caucasus Islamist leader Doku Umarov, and that the apparent gas explosion was just that (something the Russian authorities will likely confirm today). But the timing of the news appears to be a transparent attempt by Putin’s team to increase their expected margin of victory this weekend. It’s clear, however, that a large enough segment of the population no longer takes anything Putin says at face value. That’s a crisis of legitimacy, the magnitude of which few administrations could survive.

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