Deadly Crash of Nevsky Express Revives Fears of Past Bombing Campaigns

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 221

Family and friends mourn the loss of a victim aboard the Nevsky Express

On November 27, the Nevsky Express, a train that shuttles between Moscow and St. Petersburg, derailed, killing 25 people. Over 90 people received injuries of varying degree of gravity, and one of them later died, raising the death toll in the crash to 26. Two Russian high-ranking officials, Sergei Tarasov, the head of the state company responsible for Russia’s highways, and Boris Evstratikov, the head of the state agency Rosrezerv, which maintains the country’s strategic reserves of many commodities, died in the train crash (RIA Novosti, December 1).

On November 28, investigators officially announced terrorism as the cause of the train crash, even though the identity of the main suspect remained unclear. The Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov told President Dmitry Medvedev that, according to the preliminary estimates, seven kilograms of explosives were used to blow up the railway. According to the head of the Russian railway system, Vladimir Yakunin, a second explosion took place at the site of the crash in his presence on November 28, but no one was hurt in that blast (RIA Novosti, November 28).

As of December 1, only Russian nationalist groups had claimed responsibility for the suspected train bombing, but insurgents from North Caucasus are also widely assumed to be among the main potential perpetrators for such an attack. According to some analysts –like the editor-in-chief of the Internet-based investigative journal, Andrei Soldatov – in the wake of the Nevsky Express bombing, theories pinning the blame for a terrorist attack in Russia on Russian nationalists have predominated over those blaming the North Caucasus insurgency. Soldatov emphasized the difficulty of derailing a high-speed train like the Nevsky Express and suggested only highly trained professionals could have carried out such an attack (Yezhednevny Zhurnal, November 30).

Early on December 2, the North Caucasus insurgent website Kavkaz-Center announced it had received a letter from the Caucasian mujahideen claiming responsibility for the Nevsky Express train crash. The statement claimed over thirty people died in the attack, but it provided no other information that would differ from or complement the Russian media sources. The statement by the mujahideen said they had fulfilled the orders of Dokka Umarov and would continue attacks on Russia’s infrastructure, as it had proven to be an effective tactic. The statement said that while the attackers regarded Russia’s population as accomplices of the Russian state, which oppressed the Muslims of the North Caucasus, the mujahideen would still try to avoid civilian casualties (, December 2).

While neither Russian nationalists nor insurgents from the North Caucasus can be excluded, both are also equally prone to boasting about attacks they had nothing to do with. The North Caucasus insurgency, for instance, claimed responsibility for the destruction of the Sayano-Shushenskaya power plant destruction in August of this year –a claim that most experts dismissed in favor of the failure of Russia’s aging infrastructure. Grigory Shvedov, head of the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) news agency, which closely monitors the North Caucasus, told Reuters he was undecided whether Islamic insurgents may have been responsible for the attack. Pavel Felgenhauer, military observer for Novaya Gazeta, said the attack was likely aimed at undermining Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s authority, given that he had habitually been credited for crushing the Chechen rebels (Reuters, November 28).

On November 30, following a minor explosion on the railway in Dagestan, Putin stated the explosion was similar to the one that derailed the Nevsky Express three days earlier. It was uncharacteristic for Putin to make such a statement without providing much evidence for it (, November 30). The explosive used in the Dagestan blast was estimated at only 0.3 kilograms and it did not cause much disruption. Besides, explosions in Dagestan are very common, much more so than in the central parts of European Russia.

The Nevsky Express is an elite, luxury train that travels at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour, and tickets for it equal or exceed in price those for the airlines that fly between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russian experts are asking whether this bombing is the start of another chain of incidents similar to those that plagued Russia in the past. In fact, the casualties from this train crash are second only to the wave of North Caucasus rebel attacks that occurred in 2004. So a North Caucasus link, if proven, might potentially undermine or, on the contrary, revive the authority of Prime Minister Putin, endowing him with plenipotentiary powers to ensure security in Russia.

An alternative, less advertised version of the events that led to the train crash is spread through the Russian-language blogosphere. Reytar, a user of LiveJournal, the most popular blogging platform among the Russian-speakers, provided an extensive analysis of the accessible news coverage of the Nevsky Express crash and came to the conclusion that infrastructure failure was the most likely cause for the train crash. The author, a railway professional, dismissed Vladimir Yakunin’s story about a second explosion, calling it a cover up (, November 29). Official Russian experts subsequently refuted this explanation, saying it was highly unlikely that an infrastructural breakdown caused the crash (RIA Novosti, December 1).

It should be noted that an infrastructural failure, especially right in the heart of Russia, is no less an embarrassment for the government than a terrorist attack. The Nevsky Express is the fastest of Russia’s trains and it was reportedly travelling at 118 mph, nearly its top speed, at the time of the crash. Also, following the crash, Yakunin hastily confirmed that the launch date for Russia’s new high-speed train, the Sapsan (Russian for peregrine falcon), would remain as originally planned. The Sapsan was built by Siemens to service the same route as the Nevsky Express and is scheduled to start on December 18, with tickets already on sale (ITAR-TASS, November 30).

Despite the seeming plausibility of the theory that ailing Russian infrastructure caused the derailment of the Nevsky Express, another event just before the crash raised the possibility of a North Caucasus terrorist link. On November 26, Maksharip Khidriev of Ingushetia told journalists following a court hearing that he was involved in the blowing up of the Nevsky Express in August 2007. The train was also derailed in that incident, but no one was hurt. That crash of the Nevsky Express was initially blamed on Russian nationalists, but then several people of North Caucasus origins were arrested, including Khidriev, and an ethnic Russian who had converted to Islam, Pavel Kosolapov, was accused of masterminding the attack (, November 26). Chechen rights activist Ruslan Badalov, who conducted his own investigation of the 2007 train crash, expressed doubt that Khidriev was involved. He noted that Khidriev was simply the operator of an excavator at the site of the explosion who had once received a suspended sentence for an unspecified crime, which helped police to press him into confessing to a crime he may not have committed (, November 30).