Assessing The Moscow Subway Blast: Tragic Accident Or A Lethal Spillover From The War In Chechnya?

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 2 Issue: 3

Following last week’s deadly explosion in the Moscow subway, Russia’s political

leadership, the bulk of the analytical community and ordinary citizens were quick to

call the blast the work of Chechen terrorists. Various interest groups have made use

of the specter of Chechen terrorism to advance their agendas. Among them were

hawkish lawmakers who aired the idea of introducing martial law and Russian security

services who said they needed more powers to effectively fight terrorism. Embattled

Russian liberals urged the Kremlin to reconsider the way it prosecutes the

“anti-terrorist operation” against the separatists in Chechnya. Yet, some

commentators warn against arriving at premature conclusions, suggesting the tragedy

may have been the result of an accidental explosion.

A massive explosion devastated a subway car on the morning of February 6 and the

media coverage of the carnage shook Moscow residents. Although the official death

toll has been placed at 41, reports from a morgue official familiar with the

situation and in the local media estimated the actual number of deaths to be between

50 to 120. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov was quoted by Interfax as saying, “after the

procedure of identification is completed, the number of victims could be in the

region of 50.” The type of metro car that was hit by the explosion can carry up to

200 passengers, which was probably the case when the blast occurred during the

morning rush hour, Moscow metro spokeswoman said.

On Febreuary 9, Gazeta daily reported that City Hall has a list of the actual number

of those killed that is much higher than the official one, but the Federal Security

Service (FSB) has barred it from releasing the information. However, an FSB

spokesman told the Moscow Times, “We are ignoring this report. The main thing now

is to conduct the investigation.” Luzhkov called media reports claiming that the

city authorities are concealing the true death toll on the orders of the FSB

“complete rubbish.” He added, “We have never lied to the people of Moscow and

have no intention of lying.”

When he learned about the incident, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin called

terrorism “the plague of the 21st century” and appealed for international

cooperation against it. Putin has blamed the explosion on Chechen terrorists who may

be trying to pressure him into negotiating with separatist leaders ahead of next

month’s Russian presidential elections. Later, he told a gathering of senior law

enforcement officials that Chechen terrorist networks must be destroyed. “The FSB,

Interior Ministry and other agencies must continue the systematic job of liquidating

terrorist networks,” Putin said. “Special attention should be paid to the

efficiency of operatives’ work and the development of tactics to ease the threat

of terrorist acts.”

But Akhmed Zakaev, Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov’s envoy, denied any

involvement. “The president [Maskhadov] and the government of the Chechen Republic

officially declare that they have absolutely no connection with this provocation and

condemn it unequivocally,” Zakayev said in the interview with the RFE/RL, adding

that “terrorism is not our method.”

Despite the lack of evidence, there are clear signs that the Kremlin will proceed

from the standpoint that Chechens were behind the bombing. Putin has put the FSB in

charge of the metro bombing investigation. The head of the investigation team is

Aleksandr Zhdankov, the FSB’s point man for combating terrorism and a former

commander of the federal forces in Chechnya. Various FSB officials iterated that the

blast was most likely the work of a suicide bomber. “This terrorist act is

identical to the one committed last year in Yessentuki,” FSB deputy director

Vyacheslav Ushakov told a group of State Duma deputies. (In December, a suicide

bomber blew up a train near the Stavropol region town, killing 46 people.) According

to the Kommersant newspaper report on February 10, the investigators found a battery

and a tumbler with a small amount of wire on one of the bodies, which the FSB is

convinced is part of an explosive device detonated by a suicide bomber. Meanwhile,

the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily, citing FSB sources, said the blast might have been

ordered by Arab warlord Abu Walid, who is thought to be responsible for distributing

foreign financial aid among Chechen rebels.

Some Russian politicians wasted no time in exploiting the atmosphere of fear and

uncertainty following the subway blast. The hawkish lawmaker Dmitry Rogozin, a

co-chairman of the nationalist Rodina (Homeland) group, has argued there are more

important things than democracy. He praised stability and order above democratic

principles and said there was a need to introduce martial law and cancel elections.

For their part, Russian security services demanded broader powers to more

effectively fight terrorism. The FSB’s Ushakov urged Russian lawmakers to pass a

new anti-terrorist bill. The latter, he said, should resemble the USA Patriot Act

that was adopted in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. According

to Ushakov, Russian law-enforcement agencies will seek a similar type of national

security reform. He specifically stressed that the USA Patriot Act grants the United

States Justice Department “unprecedentedly harsh rights in the fight against


The metro tragedy has also prompted Russia’s politically marginalized liberals to

lash out at Putin’s brutal methods of “pacification” in Chechnya. Putin rose

to power, says Aleksandr Golts, deputy editor of the Yezhenedelny zhurnal, “from

the blood and muck of the Chechen war, and they have left their mark on his entire

presidency.” Having started as a “splendid little war,” Golts and other

liberal commentators say, the Chechen anti-terrorist operation came full circle, and

now Russia finds itself in a situation that resembles that of the first Chechen war.

The indiscriminate use of the army’s raw force failed to either reduce the number

of separatist fighters or break their will.

Liberals point to the glaring discrepancy between the Russian leadership’s

declarations about the need to consolidate international efforts in the global fight

against terror and their actual policies. On the one hand, the Putin administration

presents the Chechen war as one of the important fronts in the struggle against

international terrorism. On the other hand, the Kremlin declares the conflict in the

breakaway republic to be an issue of Russia’s internal security and rejects all

offers to internationalize its settlement. Putin’s critics argue that it is

precisely Moscow’s flawed policy in Chechnya that is responsible for the evolution

of the local separatist movement into the current situation of Islamist-sponsored

terrorism spreading throughout the region.

Yet a minority of analysts say it is premature to blame the explosion on a

particular terrorist group or even on Chechen rebels. Independent defense analyst

Pavel Felgenhauer noted that both the nature and circumstances of the blast remain

obscured by confusion. In a commentary published in the Moscow Times, he points out

that in Putin’s Russia it is difficult to ever know the truth since unbiased

investigation is ruled out, “We may never know for sure whether it was an accident

or not, just as we do not know for sure who planned the explosions of apartment

blocks in 1999 in Moscow and other cities.”