Anatomy of a Massacre
October 29, 1999
by David Satter
MOSCOW - It is hard to imagine a tragedy more fortuitous for the present Russian government than the bombings last month of apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk.
With the Yeltsin government enjoying the support of two percent of the population and many members of the Yeltsin political family threatened with the loss of their wealth or prison once Yeltsin leaves his post, the explosions united the country in support for a military campaign against Chechnya. The early success of this campaign, in turn, has led to a sharp rise in the popularity of prime minister Vladimir Putin, the man Yeltsin wants to succeed him. It has also created the conditions for declaring a state of emergency in the country and cancelling the presidential elections.
These advantages may be purely coincidental. After all, it is hard to believe that the leaders of any country would seek to achieve their political ends by blowing up nearly 300 of their own citizens. As the investigation into the bombings progresses, however, the possibility that bombings were planned by elements of the Russian leadership becomes more plausible not only because they were so politically useful but also because the official version - that they were exclusively the work of Chechen terrorists - makes increasingly less sense.
According to persons close to the investigation, the four bombings, which were carried out in a two week period, all had the same "handwriting," as attested to by the nature of the destruction, the way the buildings' concrete panels collapsed and the volume of the blast. In each case, the explosive was hexogen, a critical component in a new generation of Russian artillery shells. The bombs in three cases were placed in basements (in Volgodonsk, in a truck) and all four were set to go off in the middle of the night to kill as many people as possible.
To do what they are accused of having done without expert assistance, Chechen terrorists would have needed the ability to organize nine explosions (the four that took place and the five that the Russian authorities claim to have prevented) in widely separated cities in the space of two weeks. They also would have had to be able to act with lighting speed. In the case of the bombing on Kashirskoye Highway, the police checked the basement where the bomb was placed three hours before the blast.
In addition, the Chechen terrorists would have had to have the ability to penetrate top secret Russian military factories. Investigators believe that each bomb contained 200 to 300 kilograms of hexogen of Russian manufacture. Hexogen is produced in Russia in only one factory, which is located in the Perm oblast. Its distribution from there is tightly controlled. Despite this, the presumed Chechen terrorists were able to transport tons of hexagon to locations all over Russia.
Finally, Chechen terrorists, if they acted alone, would have had to demonstrate technical virtuosity. In Moscow, the bomb on Gurianov Street caused an entire stairway to collapse. On Kashirskoye Highway, an eight story brick building was reduced to rubble. In Volgodonsk, the truck bomb, which killed 17 people, also damaged 37 buildings in the surrounding area.
To achieve this type of result, the explosives had to be carefully measured and planted. In the case of the Moscow apartment bombings, they had to be placed to destroy the weakest, critical structural elements so that the buildings would collapse "like a house of cards." Such careful calculations are the mark of skilled specialists and the only places where such specialists are trained in Russia are the army spetsnaz forces, military intelligence (GRU) and the Federal Security Bureau (FSB.)
As it presses its second Chechen campaign, the Russian government has been careful to depict itself as a victim of international terrorism.
The West, however, should use extreme caution in accepting the Russian version of events. The bombing of Russian civilian apartment buildings by Chechen terrorists, if it did occur, would not necessarily justify the invasion of Chechnya but the bombing of Russian civilians by their own government would be a certain sign that both Russia and the West face serious dangers from the lengths to which some members of the present regime may go to protect the corrupt Yeltsin government.
David Satter, a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and a visting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), is the author of It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale). Age of Delirium, a documentary film about the fall of the Soviet Union based on his book of the same name, was recently released.