Thursday, March 2, 2017

The 1999 Moscow Apartment Bombings and the Rise of the Man President Trump Admires

by Nomad

In September 2009, American novelist, journalist, and a veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson wrote this
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.
The riddle he refers to has, today, been largely forgotten by the world press. Yet, understanding what happened in Moscow in 1999  may be a vital question that Americans need to think about.

Russia's 9/11

Two years before the US suffered it worst terror attack in New York and Washington, Moscow was the setting for a series of apartment bombing attacks. Over 293 innocent victims died and more than 1000 were injured.

Between 4 -13 September 1999, four apartment blocks were destroyed in the cities of BuynakskMoscow, and Volgodonsk. On 22 September, another bomb was successfully defused in the city of Ryazan, narrowly avoiding even greater loss of life. The threat of terrorism had struck at the very heart of the Russian Federation.

Indeed, the impact of these attacks can hardly be exaggerated. The attacks spread a wave of fear across Russia. In addition, it provided a pretext for war. The blame immediately fell on Chechen rebels.The authorities had decided that these were acts of terrorism organized and financed by the leaders of the illegal armed group Caucasus Islamic Institute, reportedly a training camp for Chechnyan guerillas.

In a country where Muslim represent  6.5% of the population, the rise of radical Islam and violent extremism in the Russian Republic was a source of grave concern for every Russian. And the Chechen rebels were considered the small end of the wedge. 

The very next day, the Prime Minister of Russia praised local police and people of  Ryazan for their vigilance in preventing further loss of life.
He then ordered air bombing of Grozny, the capital city of the Chechen Republic which marked the beginning of the Second Chechen War.
This, then, was the official version of events. However, there have always been nagging doubts that things were not quite what they seemed.

In his book, The Moscow Bombings of September 1999, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, John Dunlop attempts to fit together the pieces of the puzzle. Those pieces include eyewitness testimony, accounts of Russian officials in law enforcement agencies, investigative reporting by Russian journalists and the analyses of Western journalists and academics.

His conclusion is that case that Russian authorities were complicit in these apartment bombings. At the very least, they had advanced warnings of the planned attacks and, for political reasons, did nothing to stop them.

Before the Fact

On the surface, that might seem like a fairly irresponsible claim for any investigator to make. It certainly would require strong proof not to be casually dismissed as "just another conspiracy theory." In fact, the evidence of a conspiracy had been widely reported even before the bombings had actually occurred.

Warnings about the attacks had been leaked two months prior to the bombings. In June 1999, a pair of Western journalists reported that there would soon be an act of “state terrorism” in Russia. Jan Blomgren of the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and Giulietto Chiesa, a Moscow correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, also gave the prime reason for the attack: to instill fear and panic in the population.
Dunlop quoted a piece 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.
A coincidence?
Perhaps, but a month later in July, an even more explicit warning came from the Russian journalist Aleksandr Zhilin in the national paper Moskovskaya Pravda.

Citing a leaked Kremlin document, Zhilin wrote that the purpose would be to derail Yeltsin’s political opponents.There would be, he warned, a series of provocations, intended to "destabilize the socio-psychological situation in Moscow."
These warnings, Dunlop points out, continued right up until the first attack.
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.
This official apathy is, in itself, a cause for suspicion. Still, for whatever reason, the warnings went unheeded.
The average Russian can be forgiven disregarding the signs for a simple reason. What these journalists were suggesting simply seemed to be unthinkable.What villain would ever do something like that and why?

The Fall of the House of Yeltsin

Dunlop explains that the political situation in which the terrorist attacks took place is crucial for answering those questions.

As the 1990s drew to a close, things were not looking good for Boris Yeltsin. In some ways, what happened with Yeltsin was a testimony to the weakness of the fledgling Russian democratic movement. In particular, there were two caustic forces at work: mismanagement of the economy and corruption.
By the spring of 1999, The House of Yeltsin was on the verge of collapse. As the UK Guardian reported:
In 1998 the economy for the first time began to register a mild upswing, but it was based largely on massive loans from the International Monetary Fund and a budget deficit financed by the sale of government bonds with absurdly high rates of interest. In the summer the bubble burst. The government defaulted on its loan repayments and the rouble lost three-quarters of its value.
The world oil price- a prime source of revenue for Russia, had plummeted to below $10 a barrel. Because of the structural weakness of the economy, the ripple effect would spell financial ruin for already impoverished ordinary Russians by devaluing the ruble and making their hard-earned savings nearly worthless.

The thought of returning to the days of Soviet poverty was not something Russians were prepared for. They were quickly losing hope in all of the aspirations that followed the fall of the Soviet Empire. Western style democracy was, to skeptical eyes, looking more and more like a capitalist con game.

To make matters worse, there were charges that he and his family were looting the country.
Yeltsin and his two daughters, Yelena Okulova and Tatyana Dyachenko, were facing charges that they had been stashing away vast sums in secret bank accounts through illegal transactions with a Swiss construction firm called Mabetex.

A Swiss investigation uncovered evidence that a construction company which had received major Kremlin contracts paid tens of thousands of dollars of bills charged to credit cards in the names of President Yeltsin and his two daughters.
In 1999, The New York Times  published reports on nine bank accounts with the Bank of New York, through which up to $10 billion was laundered for the Russian Mafia, with Yeltsin's knowledge. Other reports put the total amount of laundered money at $15 billion.
The news made headlines in the US, ironically, at almost the same time as the Moscow bombings.

Mr. Nobody as the Nation's Savior

Accordingly, Yeltsin's popularity rating took a beating. In ailing health and suffering from alcoholism, Yeltsin had become something of a national embarrassment. Where once the first President of the Russian Federation, was thought of as a bearish giant riding on a tank, he now seemed politically and physically weak.

Analysts were discussing the possibility that Yeltsin's Unity party could lose the parliamentary and presidential elections (respectively scheduled for December 1999 and March 2000).

Enter Vladimir Putin. Putin's early career as a KGB-FSB officer proves that talent is less important that slavish loyalty to your boss. In this case, the Yeltsin camp. Rising up through the ranks of the FSB to become its head, Putin had earned Yeltsin's trust with a series of "good" deeds.

For example, in April 1999 when a zealous prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, seemed bound and determined to bring criminal charges against the Yeltsin family regarding the Mabetex corruption scandal, his high profile investigation crashed and burned. A video of the prosecutor was aired on Russian TV showing him carousing with prostitutes. Putin himself vouched for the authenticity of the kompromat.
So when the desperate Yeltsin scouted around for a man to be both his successor and protector of Yeltsin and his family, he didn't have to look far. For insiders, the decision to name Putin as the acting prime minister in August 1999 came as no great surprise.

As Mike LeVine notes in his book "Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia"
Putin gained a reputation as a bureaucrat who would shield his bosses and their families from prosecution and possible prison terms. ...Putin seemed to feel obligated by an almost quaint sense of honor and duty. ..That quality, so rare in Russia, combined with a willingness to work hard and avoid the spotlight, swept him into the most powerful post in the country.
He had more than earned his wings.
However, there were also a few problems with Putin. He didn't have the same type of Russian style charisma of Boris Yeltsin nor the esteemed statesmanship of Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin was a nobody- a characterless yes-man An unknown. And it seemed clear to many in the Kremlin that if the elections were held, his chances of winning were 50-50. (A corrupt drunk's endorsement can only carry so much weight.)

An Appropriate Scapegoat

If Dunlop’s sources are correct at some point in the summer of 1999, it was agreed that something would have to occur to boost Putin’s public image and demonstrate his capacity for strong leadership, a bold political move that would unite people around the new prime minister.

An article in the National Review by David Satter,  an expert on Russia and the Soviet Union, notes that the apartment bombings achieved exactly that effect.
The Russian authorities blamed Chechen rebels and thereby galvanized popular support for a new war in Chechnya.. Putin, the head of the FSB, had just been named Yeltsin’s prime minister and achieved overnight popularity by vowing revenge against those who had murdered innocent civilians.
In terms of a scapegoat, Putin's choice was excellent. In the first war of Chechnya, the Russian authorities had portrayed the conflict as a crusade against terrorism and an ultimate attempt to avoid the secession of Chechnya from the Russian Federation. Since the 1996 signing of the Khasav-Yurt Accord- which marked the end of the war, the situation in Chechnya deteriorated.
Soon after Russian troops pulled out of Chechnya in 1996, a wave of kidnappings swept the Caucasus region. The finger of blame was pointed at criminal gangs that were able to operate freely in the lawless region. As one source notes:
Russian Interior Ministry statistics showed that up to 1,300 people were kidnapped in Chechnya between 1996 and 1999. Many of the hostages were Russian conscripts that served in army units in the Caucasus. Other victims included President Boris Yeltsin's envoy to Chechnya who was freed in 1998, Russian television journalists, and more than 60 foreigners, who were considered especially lucrative targets.
In 1999, things got even worse. In March, Russia's top envoy to Chechnya, Russian Interior Ministry General Gennady Shpigun, was abducted from the airport in Chechnya's capital, Grozny. In response, the Interior Ministry deployed more troops to the Chechen border region and threatened force if the hostage was not released (he was later executed in 2000).

Given the political tensions. the average Russian citizen was more than ready to believe that Chechen rebels could be responsible for the apartment bombings. Who else had a better motive?

Simply because somebody has a motive to do something, that's not proof they committed a crime. Is there any real proof of a link between the plotters and the Yeltsin administration?
Possibly. for that we must turn to the attack that didn't happen. This is where things get really bizarre.

Sugar in Ryazan

False flag operations are tricky things. They demand a high level of skill and coordination and timing and ideally the illusion must be seamless, leaving no room for doubts. If not, they can backfire in the faces of the people who orchestrated them.

In the case of the apartment bombings, as we have seen, there were warnings even before the attacks occurred. In a nation so used to such political gamesmanship, it's not very easy to fool all of the people. From the first moments, there were suspicions that the terrorist attacks were a bit too providential and too perfectly timed.

Then came the fifth and failed attack in Ryazan. In that incident, an unexploded bomb was discovered in the basement of an apartment building in the city southeast of Moscow. Those who placed the bomb seemed to have been caught in the act by the local police due to the watchful eyes of residents. The plotters were arrested. Amazingly, however, the men turned out not to be Chechen terrorists but agents of the FSB.

When the agents were arrested by the local police, the head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, explained that the bomb in the basement of the apartment building was a fake and that it was part of a training exercise. The very idea seemed preposterous but how else could it be explained?

According to the Russian Deputy Prosecutor, a comprehensive testing of the samples showed no trace of explosives. The 2002 report stated that the sacks from the Ryazan site contained sugar. This seemed to back up the FSB's bizarre training exercise claim.

However, Yuri Tkachenko, the police explosives expert who defused the Ryazan bomb, scoffed at the FSB's analysis of the sample.

Tkachenko said that the explosives, including a timer, a power source, and a detonator were genuine military equipment and obviously prepared by a professional. He also said that the gas analyzer that tested the vapors coming from the sacks unmistakably indicated the presence of RDX, (Research Department Explosive).
Furthermore, this also happened to be the same explosive used in the four successful apartment bombing.

How could this be explained by the government? Could the analyzer be faulty?
That said Tkachenko was out of the question. It was state of the art technology, costing $20,000 and was carefully maintained by a specialist. Think again.

On top of that, there was the testimony of the police officers who answered the call and who discovered the bomb. They insisted that it was obvious by the appearance that the bomb was not sugar.

Immoral Allegations

To those on the inside, it must have seemed that the entire operation was about to come crashing down. The fallout would have crushed the Yeltsin government and dashed all hopes of Putin's ascendancy. Russian journalists were beginning to look into the Ryazan events in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. The FSB scrambled to cover its tracks as many Russians were starting to smell something rotten.      

As the questions were becoming more and more troublesome, the newly elected Prime Minister Putin clamped down on speculation. His response to the suspicions was characteristic.  He refused even to discuss the possibility.
“There are no people in the Russian secret services who would be capable of such a crime against their own people.The very allegation is immoral.”
Meanwhile, events in Moscow were moving along smoother than might be expected. In December 1999, Yeltsin resigned as president of Russia and appointed Putin acting president until official elections were held. He assumed direction of the war and, on the strength of initial successes, Putin was elected to his first term and in March 2000 with 53 percent of the vote.

The commencement of the Second Chechen war proved to be a successful diversion. The spectacle of war is always a fine public distraction. The city of Grozny was effectively erased from the face of the earth, the worst urban destruction in Europe since World War II.
(That was true until the devastation inflicted on the cities of Homs and Aleppo by President Bashar Assad's regime in Putin-supported Syria.)

Vladimir Putin's bold political and military move paid off. In a country which had known centuries of authoritarianism, tThe Russian people soon forgot their doubts. They were in the mood for this kind of leadership. He had vowed to make Russia great again and that required some flexibility in public perceptions. So Russians appeared willing to believe the implausible, to stand by their leader, and to be disinterested in the possibility of Putin's treachery.
Not everybody, however, was so willing to drop the matter, even if asking too many questions meant risking their lives.

Extremely Nasty Things

Over the years, extremely nasty things seemed to happen to anybody who criticized the official narrative about the bombings. Since 1999, thirteen journalists have been murdered in Russia. Nearly all the deaths took place in strange circumstances, and none of them have been successfully investigated or prosecuted.

Here are a few of the "highlights" of hits of journalists that question the events of 1999.

Journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin was a member of the Sergei Kovalev Commission, which investigated allegations that the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings and the allegation that the attacks had been planned by the FSB.
A few days before his scheduled departure to the United States, where he planned to meet with FBI investigators, Shchekochikhin died suddenly in July 2003 from a mysterious illness. Analysis of the blood and tissue samples suggested the symptoms of radiation poisoning.

The legal counsel and investigator of the same commission, Mikhail Trepashkin, was arrested by Russian authorities on October 22, 2003, just a week before the hearings regarding the identity of FSB member involved in the bombings, Trepashkin was arrested for illegal arms possession. He was convicted by a closed military court to four years for illegal arms possession, for revealing state secrets and for abuse of the office.

The vice chairman of the Sergei Kovalev commission was human-rights defender Sergei Yushenkov. On 17 April 2003, Yushenkov was gunned down near his house in Moscow, just hours after finally obtaining the registrations needed for his Liberal Russia party to participate in the December 2003 parliamentary elections in 55 regions.

Another journalist Anna Politkovskaya also questioned the government's account of the Moscow bombing. Having barely survived being poisoned, she was murdered in her apartment elevator in 2006.
Her killer, in true Mafia fashion, shot her four times before delivering a head shot. Coincidentally, the murder of one of Russia's acclaimed journalist occurred on Putin's birthday 7 October.

And then, only a few weeks later, there is the case of Alexander Litvinenko. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it ought to.
Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian FSB secret service, ran afoul of the agency and fled with his family to London. There, he worked as a journalist, writer, and consultant for the British intelligence services.

While in exile, he penned two books: Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within and Lubyanka Criminal Group. In the books, he alleged that the Russian secret services of having arranged the apartment bombings and other terrorism acts in an effort to bring Putin to power.

On 1 November 2006, Litvinenko suddenly fell ill and was hospitalized. At first, doctors were baffled by his symptoms. It was soon established that Litvinenko was dying from poisoning by radioactive polonium-210 which had apparently been administered in his tea. On his deathbed, he accused Putin of killing him; he also blamed Putin for Politkovskaya’s death. In a letter from prison, Trepashkin (mentioned above) alleged that in 2002 FSB decided to kill Alexander Litvinenko.

The free press in Russian has never really recovered from Putin's attempt to silence all "immoral allegations."

The Implicit Danger of Admiring Putin

It would be bad enough if it were only the Russian people who had chosen to ignore the lessons of the Moscow bombing. This ignorance and apathy have affected American policy to Russia.

In the United States, Republicans, emerging from the fringe, can now dare to call Vladimir Putin a great leader. According to a poll conducted by the Economist and YouGov, the number of Republican voters who held a favorable view of Putin's leadership was at 24%. By December, that percentage had risen to an astounding 37 %. As Politico recently reported:
By comparison, only 17 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of President Barack Obama, the December poll found. Obama’s net negative among Republicans is 64 points – significantly worse than the party’s take on Putin.
Given what we know about Putin's ascendancy to power, it should send a shiver up the spine of every American when President Trump claims to respect the Russian leader. Over the last year, Trump has lauded heaps of praise on Putin's achievements.
"Look at Putin -- what he's doing with Russia -- I mean, you know, what's going on over there. I mean this guy has done -- whether you like him or don't like him -- he's doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period,"
It should unnerve citizens when Trump takes a more sympathetic view of Russia and Putin.  
"He's running his country and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country,"
It should keep Americans up at night thinking about how one of Trump’s most vocal surrogates, Rudy Giuliani, praised Putin for acting like “a leader.” It's an extremely shameful thing for any American politician to say publicly.

Perhaps Mr. Giuliani isn't aware of the facts of the Moscow apartment bombings. Perhaps he is and admires Putin anyway. Giuliani is the man who was mayor of New York on that fateful day in September 2001. a man who witnessed the devastation on the dusty streets.

But most of Americans should be extremely concerned by this one critical fact. After less than a month in office, President Trump is now facing a situation similar to Boris Yeltsin faced in 1999.

I will close this post with a quote that Americans might take to heart. A leading Russian essayist and journalist, Anton Orekh reflected on the terror attacks:
“For me personally, the bombings of the apartment houses are a key moment in our most recent history. Because if those bombings were not accidental in the sequence of the events which followed: if, to put it bluntly, they were the work of our [Russian] authorities—then everything will once and forever take its proper place. Then there is not and cannot be an iota of illusion about [the nature of] those who rule us. Then those people are not minor or large-scale swindlers and thieves. Then they are among the most terrible of criminals.”