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Vladimir Putin casts his vote in the 1999 Duma election, December 19, 1999 (Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images)
Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images

How America Helped Make Vladimir Putin Dictator for Life

David Satter

It is impossible to evaluate events in Russia today without understanding the mysterious series of bombings in 1999 that killed 300 civilians and created the conditions for Vladimir Putin to become Russia’s dictator for life.

The bombings changed the course of Russia’s post-Soviet history. They were blamed on the Chechens, who denied involvement. In the wake of initial success, Russia launched a new invasion of Chechnya. Putin, who had just been appointed prime minister, was put in charge of the invasion and his popularity soared. Six months later, he was elected president.

On July 14, 2016, I filed a request for documents on the bombings from the State Department, the CIA and the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. I wanted to know whether the U.S. had information to support the view—which is widespread in Russia—that the Russian authorities themselves blew up the bombings in order to bring Putin to power. The responses I received showed that the United States had considerable evidence that the Russian authorities were responsible for the bombings, but chose to ignore it.

The bombings have influenced U.S.-Russian relations to this day. The policy of self-censorship in the case of the bombings has been applied to every one of the Putin era crimes in which there was evidence that the real author was the regime. The 1999 apartment bombings were followed by the 2002 Dubrovka Theater hostage siege, the 2004 Beslan school massacre, the murder of former Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Alexander Litvinenko in London and the murders of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow. In each instance, U.S. policy was to ignore the evidence of official involvement and move on. It was this that made possible the Obama “reset” policy and helps to explain why President Donald Trump, as a candidate, questioned Putin’s responsibility for the murder of journalists and oppositionists and later, as president, justified Russian crimes with the statement, “We kill people too.”

One of the things I wanted to learn as a result of my FOIA requests was the U.S. assessment of who was responsible for the bombings. The State Department provided six documents but nothing about an assessment. I made a renewed request, and March 22, the State Department responded that documents concerning the U.S. assessment of the bombings would remain secret. The CIA refused to produce any documents and the FBI produced nothing that was not publicly known.

In a draft Vaughn index, a document used to justify withholdings in FOIA cases, the State Department said the release of that information had “the potential to inject friction into or cause serious damage” to the relationship with the Russian government which was “vital to U.S. national security.” The response did not mean that it was the assessment that would “inject friction.” The assessment may have been withheld because it would incidentally reveal “sources and methods.” It is the former possibility, however, that is consistent with the attitude that has characterized U.S. behavior in regard to the bombings ever since they occurred. This silence, in turn, has had consequences for the whole fabric of U.S.–Russian relations. By not raising the most important issues, the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have allowed Russia to present a false image of itself which, over time, we ourselves have come to believe, undercutting belated efforts to object to Russian crimes and making us vulnerable to Russian manipulation.

***

The 1999 bombings were fortuitous for Yeltsin and his corrupt entourage. They shifted the attention of the country from Yeltsin’s corruption to the Chechens, a very convenient enemy. After Putin’s election as President, Yeltsin was pardoned for all crimes committed while in office and the issue of the criminal privatization of property under Yeltsin was quietly dropped.

But there would have been few questions about the role of the bombings in Putin’s rise to power if it had not been for a fifth bomb discovered on Sept. 22, 1999, in the basement of a building in Ryazan, southeast of Moscow and quickly deactivated. The bomb tested positive for hexogen, the explosive used in the four previous blasts and had a live detonator. The building was evacuated and Ryazan was cordoned off. On Sept. 24, the bombers were arrested. They turned out to be not Chechen terrorists but agents of the FSB.

The arrest of the agents, who produced FSB identification and were quickly released on orders of the FSB in Moscow, required an explanation. Nikolai Patrushev, who had replaced Putin as FSB director, announced on national television that the bomb was a fake and what had occurred was not an attempted terrorist act but a training exercise. He congratulated the people of Ryazan on their vigilance.

From the beginning, the explanation that the Ryazan bomb was part of a training exercise made little sense. When I went to Ryazan in April 2000, residents of the targeted building said it would have been “idiotic” to test them for vigilance after the bombings of four apartment buildings had already plunged Russia into a state of terror.

Dmitri Florin, a former Ryazan policeman, who was on duty that night, published a memoir in Live Journal, a Russian social media site, in which he made clear that the Russian authorities were lying when they said that the incident was a training exercise. The panic and chaos that he witnessed first-hand were consistent with only one thing—an attempt to blow up a fifth building. Almost immediately after the discovery of the bomb and the positive test for hexogen, Florin wrote, the police in Ryazan were issued bulletproof vests and automatic weapons and ordered to remain on the street without a break. Central police headquarters in Ryazan, which had been nearly empty, began to resemble a wartime military staff. In the words of one policeman quoted by Florin, “it was as if the city had been hit by an atomic bomb.” The entire leadership of the Ryazan police arrived and orders were issued in an endless stream over the radio.

In Russia, the law on civil defense requires that exercises in a residential area include a plan that is confirmed in advance with the local authorities. In Ryazan, not a single local government agency was aware of the intention to hold an “exercise.” For two days, the local authorities, including the local branch of the FSB were convinced that they were dealing with an attempted terrorist attack. Every policeman was handed a composite sketch of two of the three suspects based on the descriptions provided by residents of the building who saw persons carrying sacks into the basement. The following day, the sketches appeared in every store window in the city.

It was particularly significant that the local FSB was not informed of an exercise. If this was really an exercise, local FSB agents believing that they were searching for genuine “terrorists” could have easily shot the FSB agents who were carrying out the so called “exercise” unaware that they were part of the same organization.

Meanwhile, the official Russian media, including the Kremlin news service, ITAR-TASS for two days (Sept. 23-24) announced the news that “with the help of the citizens,” Russia had prevented a new terrorist attack. On the morning of Sept. 24, the Russian air force began the bombing of Grozny, ostensibly to destroy terrorist bases. Putin, who was in Kazakhstan on a state visit, confirmed there was an attempted attack. That same day, Vladimir Rushailo, the minister of internal affairs, told a meeting of the ministry’s organized crime unit that a terrorist act had been averted. At midday on Sept. 24, however, the three FSB agents were arrested and identified. It was now necessary urgently to change the story of an attempted terrorist attack. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, went on television and explained that the bomb was a dummy and what had taken place was a test of vigilance by the FSB.

***

Despite its absurdity, very few persons were willing to challenge the FSB version of events. This was critical because if the FSB had put a live bomb containing hexogen in the basement of the building at 14-16 Novoselov Street in Ryazan, they were almost certainly responsible for the four bombs that did go off in Buinaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk, which also contained hexogen.

A few brave individuals did try to investigate the Ryazan incident. When the State Duma, which was controlled by the regime, voted three times against opening an inquiry into the incident, an independent social commission was created that included several deputies, among them, Sergei Yushchenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist with the independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. Yushchenkov was shot dead outside his apartment building on April 17, 2003. Shchekochikhin was poisoned in July 2003. Litvinenko and Politkovskaya also investigated the bombings only to be killed. In the wake of these murders, a curtain of fear descended in Russia over the issue of how Putin came to power.

The United States did not face these pressures but showed no inclination to raise the many disturbing questions about the apartment bombings and the Ryazan incident. On Feb. 8, 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in response to a question from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), as to whether there was any evidence linking the bombings to Chechnya, replied, “We have not seen evidence linking the bombings to Chechnya.” When she was asked, “Do you believe the Russian government is justified when it accuses Chechen groups as responsible for the bombings?” Albright refused to respond. “The investigation into the bombings is ongoing,” she said. This response was given more than four months after FSB agents were arrested for placing the bomb in Ryazan. Albright then added helpfully that “acts of terror have no place in a democratic society.”

In fact, the documents that I obtained under the FOIA show that, from the beginning, the State Department was not ready to view the information it had about the bombings objectively. In a report issued Sept. 16, after the fourth apartment bombing in Volgodonsk, the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) reported that Putin on Sept. 14 had described Chechnya as “an enormous terrorist camp.” It referred to accusations in the newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets that the government itself was responsible for the bombings by saying, “key political groups have not hesitated to try to exploit the situation for their own political ends.” It described the newspaper as “Luzhkov sponsored” [Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, was Yeltsin’s leading political rival] and wrote, “Most observers publicly support the government’s claim.”

But Moskovskiy Komsomolets, at the time, had a reputation for independence and integrity. In his 2012 book, The Moscow Bombings of 1999, John Dunlop, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote that in 1999, Moskovskiy Komsomolets had “a stable of well-informed, high-octane investigative journalists” and did the “heavy lifting” in investigating the bombings before being joined by other leading newspapers such as Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Obshchaya Gazeta. On Sep. 15, Moskovskiy Komsomoletsin one of the reports that the State Department dismissed said, “a tentative conclusion [reached by independent investigators] was that the Chechen mujahedin had no relationship to the terror acts in the capital… The terrorist acts … were, with almost 100 per cent certainty, carried out by professionals.”

The U.S. unwillingness to raise the subject of the bombings continued even as suspicions about the FSB’s role began to surface in the State Department’s own reporting. In a cable from the Moscow embassy, an embassy political officer reported that a former Russian intelligence officer, apparently one of the embassy’s principal informants, said that the real story about the Ryazan incident could never be known because it “would destroy the country.” The informant said the FSB had “a specially trained team of men” whose mission was “to carry out this type of urban warfare” and Viktor Cherkesov, the FSB’s first deputy director and an interrogator of Soviet dissidents was “exactly the right person to order and carry out such actions.”

The political officer reported that another source, a person close to the Russian communist party whose candidate Gennady Zyuganov was defeated by Putin in the March, 2000 Presidential election said that he believed Ryazan raised serious questions about “the conduct of the security services and the source of last year’s apartment bombings.” He said that the communist party was reluctant to pursue the matter for fear of being “tarred as ‘unpatriotic’ if it makes public accusations against the security services.” The political officer reported that his other sources, described as “observers of the Moscow political scene” also expressed doubts about the official version of the Ryazan incident

The United States was also aware of other evidence that the apartment bombings were a false flag attack. On September 13, 1999, Gennady Seleznev, the speaker of the Duma and a person close to Putin, announced that a building in Volgodonsk had been bombed. On the day of his announcement, a building was bombed but in Moscow, on Kashirskoye Highway. The building in Volgodonsk was not blown up until Sept. 16 , three days later. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, took to the podium of the Duma on Sept. 17 and said, “Do you see what is happening in this country? You say an apartment building was blown up on Monday and it explodes on Thursday. This can be evaluated as a provocation.” When Zhirinovsky continued to demand an explanation, his microphone was cut off.

In the face of this kind of evidence, the United States should at least have asked publicly for an explanation of the inconsistencies in the Russian official account. But that was apparently not what US policymakers wanted. In subsequent years, U.S. government Russia specialists, when asked about the bombings, quickly changed the subject. Academics and journalists, concerned about visas and access, also found it easier to write about Russia without discussing how Putin came to power.

***

The world never really forgot the apartment bombings. On Sept. 24, 2014, the youth wing of the opposition Yabloko party held a conference in Moscow to mark the 15thanniversary of the Ryazan incident. During the 2011-12 anti-Putin demonstrations, signs appeared referring to “Ryazan sugar.” [The Russian authorities claimed that the Ryazan bomb, which was quickly removed by the FSB, was made of sugar.] The tolerated Russian opposition press avoids the subject but the bombings are still discussed in detail on banned opposition sites such as Kasparov.ru.

In 2015, PBS released a Frontline documentary on Putin titled “Putin’s Way,” in which I was interviewed at length about the bombings. It was the first time, outside of my own writing, that a mainstream media outlet had accepted the explanation that the FSB had carried out the attacks. Two important books also appeared supporting the idea that Putin came to power through an act of terror. These are Dunlop’s book and Karen Dawisha’s “Putin’s Kleptocracy.”  After I was expelled from Russia in December 2013, I wrote a new book, “The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin,” which includes a detailed discussion of the history and significance of the apartment bombings.

On Jan. 11, 2017, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), raised the issue of the bombings explicitly during the confirmation hearings for secretary of state designate Rex Tillerson. Only John McCain (R-Arizona) had raised the issue previously and he did so in a much more guarded fashion. This was a possible sign that the bombings, ignored for so long, will finally become a subject of serious Western debate.

In fact, the West cannot afford to ignore such an atrocity, even 18 years after it occurred. The CIA, in response to my request for documents, has said that because of the need to protect “sources and methods” it cannot provide documents or even acknowledge that the apartment bombings were investigated. I believe that the existing evidence establishes the guilt of the FSB in blowing up the buildings beyond a reasonable doubt even without further confirmation. But documents in CIA and State Department files that include assessments of the 1999 events and the information on which they are based have the potential to make this guilt even more convincing.

If Russia’s rulers committed terrorist acts against their own people in order to come to power, it means that they differ little from those who place car bombs in crowded markets in order to polarize Shiites and Sunnis. I think it is obvious that such people cannot be reliable partners in the war on terror.

At the same time, a thorough examination of the bombings is necessary because it has the potential to blunt and perhaps put an end to the Russian propaganda assault against the West. Even the most deluded citizen of a Western country would be sobered by the awareness that the authors of that propaganda are capable of crimes far beyond anything with which they accuse the West. Needless to say, all talk of Putin as a defender of traditional moral values which is popular in some conservative circles, would, under these circumstances, come to an end.

Perhaps most important, the truth about Russia’s post-Soviet history could lay the foundation for an eventual genuine U.S.–Russia rapprochement to replace the self-deluding “resets” that appear to be so temptating for American Presidents. Russians, meanwhile, need to understand their own history. Facing the reality of Putin’s path to power may show Russians more powerfully than any Western propaganda ever could, the terrible cost of subservience to the state and the state’s disregard for human life.

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