Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 155

Not surprisingly, Russian political officials–and, undoubtedly, most Russian citizens–believe that Chechen separatist rebels were behind yesterday’s bombing at Moscow’s Pushkin Square. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was the most unequivocal among the officials, stating in a television interview late last night that the incident had “an obvious Chechen trail.” Federal law enforcement officials pointed in the same direction, but were somewhat more cautious in doing so. For example, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev, who broke off his vacation in Sochi following the blast and returned to Moscow, said he did not rule out the Chechen link, but that other explanations were possible and that it was too early to draw any final conclusions. For his part, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov denied that the Chechen rebels were in any way connected to the bombing (Russian agencies, August 8-9; NTV August 9).

The Russian suspicion of a Chechen role in the bombing is more plausible this time than it was in last year’s apartment building bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities, which killed nearly 300 people. In last year’s incidents, it was more difficult to understand the Chechen motive, given that the armed incursion by Chechen-led guerrillas into neighboring Dagestan had sparked a serious but localized conflict. It was only after the blasts that the Russian armed forces mounted a full-scale military operation in Chechnya. And both the selection of targets in those bombings–including two apartment buildings in a remote working-class neighborhood of Moscow–and that no group ever took responsibility for the blasts, just as the Russian authorities never presented evidence of Chechen involvement, led some to doubt the official accusations. Indeed, some observers even suspected–and continue to suspect–that the Russian special services themselves may have been involved, with the motive of trying to create a pretext for a new war in Chechnya and to build support for then President Boris Yeltsin’s designated successor, Vladimir Putin. This time, however, at least some of the factors are quite different. Yesterday’s bombing followed almost a year of massive bombardment of Chechnya by Russian forces, and came just two days after the fourth anniversary of the seizure of Djohar [Grozny], the Chechen capital, by rebel forces. Russian military officials had expressed fears that the rebels would mount high-profile attacks to mark that anniversary. In addition, it took place in central Moscow–a logical target from the point of view of vengeful terrorists. What is more, the rebel movement has become increasingly fractured over the course of the war, and it is entirely possible that more radical, Islamist elements in the movement have decided to carry out terrorist acts against civilians in Moscow and other Russian cities.