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Intel Brief: The 1999 apartment building bombings in Russia


 
Map of Russia with Moscow highlighted

Where: Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk


Who’s involved:

  • Russian government, FSB (Russian Security Services), Russian prime minister/president Vladimir Putin, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Chechen terrorists, Russian civilians, Ukraine.


What happened?

  • In September 1999 a series of car and truck bombings took place in Russian suburbs killing at least 300 people and injuring hundreds of others. These bombings were blamed on Chechen separatists and led to the invasion of Russian troops into Chechnya and the Second Chechen War started.

  • In August 1999, President Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, the head of the Russian security services, the FSB, to be prime minister.

  • After the bombings, Putin declared on national television that: “We will pursue them everywhere. Excuse me for saying so: We’ll catch them in the toilet. We’ll wipe them out in the outhouse.” He then ordered the Russian Army to invade Chechnya to “route out” the terrorists.

  • After the initial bombings across Russia, three men were seen hiding big bags into a car near an apartment building in the city of Ryazan. The local FSB office was alerted and arrested the three men and said two bags of explosives were found together with a timer detonator. Putin then praised the FSB for its swift actions on national television.

  • It was soon discovered that the three arrested men were FSB agents and it was declared that the powder in the bags was a well-known chemical explosive.

  • However, the day after the arrests the new head of the FSB declared that the three men arrested were indeed FSB officers but that they were conducting a training exercise and the bags on site simply contained sugar. He apologized for the scare the exercise had brought to the public.

  • Reporters, lawyers for the victims of the bombings, and opposition politicians doubted the official claim that the events in Ryazan were an FSB exercise. Throughout the following years, many of those who openly spoke out on the subject were either imprisoned on questionable charges or killed by various means like poisoning and assassination in the street.

  • The bombings and his subsequent reaction consolidated Putin’s position in power and made him “the man of the people” in the eyes of the general public.


Analysis:

  • The bombings and the invasion of Chechnya were a good distraction for the Russian government to get the attention away from internal domestic economic problems.

  • The bombings also gave Putin the power and leverage he needed to get rid of some of his political enemies and it made it easier for him to “clean house” at the Kremlin.

  • With the attacks it not only made Putin the “strongman of the people” it also made Russia the victim of outside forces in the eye of the Russian public, which in turn made any internal domestic problems seem less important.

  • The real rise of Putin as a powerful global leader began in 1999 after the Second Chechen War. It started Russia’s campaign of expansion into other countries, all former Soviet republics. Invasions in Georgia, Ukraine, the stationing of troops in Moldova, the subjugation of Belarus into a Russian vassal state, and the war in Syria all helped consolidate Putin’s position in power. He used the “external threats” as a cover for taking out political enemies in Russia itself. The violent cracking down on protests against the government was simply classified as cracking down on traitors who were supporting “the enemy.” In turn, the latter was usually described as neo-nazi or neo-fascist sympathizers invoking images of the Second World War and the heroic fight of the Russians against the Nazi occupiers.

  • It is likely that Putin will use the same tactics now that the Wagner mercenary group has rebelled against the government in June of 2023. It is relevant to keep in mind that Putin has a playbook for the moments such as these, in which his power is questioned. By staging attacks on Russian soil or on Russian-aligned citizens in former Soviet republics, he depicts Russia and its citizens as victims and he would be able to show force.

  • Just days after the Wagner uprising, Putin went out in public and made public speeches where he was applauded as the “great strong leader” of the country.

  • On 04/07/2023 Russia claimed it had taken out 5 drones that were headed for Moscow. Putin claimed that it was a Ukrainian terrorist attack aimed at civilian targets. Ukraine did not reply to these accusations, but with these attacks, Putin can picture Russia as the target and divert attention away from the Wagner uprising and the slow advance, and even retreat, of Russian forces in Ukraine.


Conclusion:

  • The 1999 bombings of apartment buildings across Russia seemed a carefully orchestrated attack to strengthen and consolidate the position of Putin as the “great and powerful” leader of a new Russia. Journalists, researchers, and government agencies around the world have little doubt that the attacks in 1999 were implemented by Putin and the FSB, of which he had been in charge until August 1999, in order to give a green light for the invasion of Chechnya by Russian forces.

  • The recent uprising of the Wagner mercenaries in Russia made Putin and his government look weak in the eyes of the world and those of the Russian people. Therefore, it is highly likely that Putin will seek to reconsolidate his position of power. His public appearances in the days after the Wagner uprising are a start, but he will need more, such as an attack on Russian (or Ukranian) soil.

  • Whether the drone attacks of 04/07/2023 fit in this scenario is unclear since there were no victims reported. The coming weeks will show whether or not Putin feels the need to re-establish his power by weeding out his opponents in and outside the Kremlin and whether he feels the need to orchestrate a violent domestic occurrence that can be blamed on outside forces.



 

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