Putin’s Bloody Past Part Two
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in Ceylon Today on March23 2022 under the title “Chechnya Conflict’s Repercussions.”
In September 1999, more than 300 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in bomb blasts in four apartment blocks in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk. Russian courts ruled that the attacks were orchestrated by Chechen-linked militants. However, some scholars, journalists, and politicians have argued that Russian security services probably organized the bombings. Prime minister Putin’s handling of the crisis boosted his popularity greatly and helped him attain the presidency soon after. The bombings, together with the Invasion of Dagestan, spread a wave of fear across Russia and triggered the Second Chechen War.
Chechen militants were blamed for the bombings, but they and Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov denied responsibility. A suspicious device resembling those used in the bombings was found and defused in an apartment block in the Russian city of Ryazan on 22 September. Three FSB agents who had planted the devices at Ryazan were arrested by the local police. On 24 September 1999, head of FSB Nikolay Patrushev announced that the incident in Ryazan had been an anti-terror drill and the device found there contained only sugar. On 23 September, Vladimir Putin praised the vigilance of the inhabitants of Ryazan and ordered the air bombing of Grozny, which marked the beginning of the Second Chechen War.
In 2000, seven people were convicted of perpetrating the Buynaksk attack. All the bombings, the court ruled, were ordered by Islamist warlords Ibn Al-Khattab and Abu Omar al-Saif, who had been killed. Five other suspects were killed.
An independent public commission to investigate the bombings was chaired by Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev. The commission was rendered ineffective because of government refusal to respond to its inquiries. Two key members of the Kovalev Commission, Sergei Yushenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, died in apparent assassinations. The Commission’s lawyer and investigator Mikhail Trepashkin was arrested and served four years in prison for revealing state secrets. Former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who defected and blamed the FSB for the bombings, was poisoned and killed in London in 2006. A British inquiry later determined that Litvinenko’s murder was “probably” carried out with the approval of Putin.
Dubrovka Theatre Siege
On 23 October 2002, 40 Chechen militants, allegedly led by warlord Movsar Barayev, took 912 hostages at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow, where the popular musical Nord-Ost was being performed. They were well-equipped with more than 100kg of explosives, about 100 hand grenades, three heavy bombs, 18 Kalashnikov assault rifles and 20 pistols. Journalists, rights activists and the general public wondered how they managed to do this and guessed that rebels bribed policemen at road checkpoints.
Three days later Russian security services pumped some kind of sleeping gas into the hall, stormed it and killed all the attackers and up to 130 hostages, including nine foreigners. Most of the hostages died, not at the hands of the gunmen and women, but apparently because of the effects of the gas. Analysis of drug residue from the clothing of two British hostages and the urine of a third British hostage, by a team of researchers at the British chemical and biological defense laboratories at Porton Down, Wiltshire, England, indicated two fentanyl derivatives were used.
Efforts by MP Sergey Yushenkov to carry out parliamentary hearings were blocked by the pro-Kremlin majority. Nobody was brought to account for the deaths of 119 people in hospital after the “liberation operation” was completed, or for the inability of intelligence services to prevent the attack. Putin awarded FSB deputy director Vladimir Pronichev, who managed the operation, the title of Hero of Russia.
During the Moscow theatre siege, Putin was reportedly angered by the NTV television channel showing a rally of desperate relatives, demanding that Russia give in to the militants’ demands and withdraw from Chechnya. Soon afterwards, its director-general Boris Jordan was fired, and thereafter NTV lost any independence and objectivity.
Doubts over the handling of the crisis did not undermine President Putin. Like other crises and catastrophes in Russia, the effect has often been to consolidate his grip on power.
Another siege, this one at a school at Beslan, was another example of the callous incompetence of the Russian authorities and the feeble paranoia of Putin. On 1 September 2004, Chechen militants took more than 1,000 people hostage in a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. The Beslan school was next to the district police station. The siege started on 1 September 2004, lasted three days, involved the imprisonment of more than 1,100 people as hostages (including 777 children) and ended with the deaths of 333 people, 186 of them children, as well as 31 of the attackers.
Putin behaved then as callously towards his own people as he is behaving today towards Ukrainians. David Satter of the Hudson Institute said the incident “presents a chilling portrait of the Russian leadership and its total disregard for human life.” Some human rights activists claim that at least 80% of the dead hostages were killed by indiscriminate army fire. At least three, but as many as nine, Shmel rockets were fired at the school from the special forces’ positions. Shmel rockets are thermobaric weapons, described by a source associated with the US military as “just about the most vicious weapon you can imagine – igniting the air, sucking the oxygen out of an enclosed area and creating a massive pressure wave crushing anything unfortunate enough to have lived through the conflagration.”
Scores of hostages were moved by the militants from the burning sports hall into other parts of the school, in particular the cafeteria, where they were forced to stand at windows. Many of them were shot by troops outside as they were used as human shields. According to Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, “It was not a hostage rescue operation … but an army operation aimed at wiping out the terrorists.” Journalists saw two T-72 tanks advance on the school that afternoon, at least one of which fired its 125 mm main gun several times. The use of tanks and armoured personnel carriers was eventually admitted to by Lieutenant General Viktor Sobolev, commander of the 58th Army.
The day after the storming, bulldozers gathered the debris of the building, including the body parts of the victims, and removed it to a garbage dump.
The authorities tried to stop journalists reporting on the siege. The late Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had negotiated during the 2002 Moscow siege, was twice prevented by the authorities from boarding a flight. When she eventually succeeded, she fell into a coma after being poisoned on board an aeroplane. Several correspondents were detained or otherwise harassed after arriving in Beslan. Foreign journalists were also briefly detained or otherwise subjected to pressure from the security forces and material was confiscated from TV crews. The Georgian correspondent Nana Lezhava, who had been kept for five days in the Russian pre-trial detention centers, had been poisoned with dangerous psychotropic drugs. Raf Shakirov, chief editor of the Russia’s leading newspaper, Izvestia, was forced to resign. The paper had featured large pictures of dead or injured hostages and expressed doubts about the government’s version of events.
Putin did not make a public statement until the second day. He said during a meeting in Moscow with King Abdullah II of Jordan: “Our main task, of course, is to save the lives and health of those who became hostages. All actions by our forces involved in rescuing the hostages will be dedicated exclusively to this task.” That was the only public statement by Putin about the crisis until one day after the siege ended. In a televised speech, Putin said: “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.” Putin only visited Beslan once, a hurried trip to the hospital to see some of the wounded victims. He was criticised for not meeting the families of victims. He specifically dismissed the foreign criticism from abroad saying that the West wants to “pull the strings so that Russia won’t raise its head.” He avoided his usual ploy of blaming of Chechen separatists. This time he focused the blame on “direct intervention of international terrorism”.
More blood next week.