On February 27, Russian state television’s Channel One announced that the Russian and Ukrainian security services had thwarted a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The attack allegedly was supposed to take place soon after the March 4 Russian presidential election. Members of the hit squad were arrested in Ukraine on January 4 after their IED accidentally exploded in Odessa, killing one of the accomplices and wounding another. The group reportedly arrived in Ukraine from the United Arab Emirates via Turkey with instructions from the representatives of Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov. Adam Osmaev, an instructor and a courier for the terrorists, was the alleged mastermind of the attack on Putin. Osmaev disclosed the location in Moscow where explosive materials had been deposited in advance of the attacks (http://www.1tv.ru/news/crime/200024, February 27).
Osmaev allegedly learned about explosives while studying at Great Britain’s University of Buckingham, where he also befriended militants who had fled Russia. He studied in detail the patterns of Putin’s movements in Moscow and trained his other accomplices. The TV channel also reported that there were attempts on Putin’s life in 2001, 2008 and 2009. Each attempt was thwarted by the security services (http://www.1tv.ru/news/crime/200059, February 27).
Observers in Russia, however, counted up to 12 known assassination attempts targeting Vladimir Putin between 2000 and 2012. None of the perpetrators of those attempts is known to have been tried. Instead, as one sources concluded, “all those who plotted to kill Vladimir Putin, like [those who plotted to kill] his predecessors Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, either died under suspicious circumstances while under investigation or were found to be insane and put in special hospitals where traces of them disappeared” (http://ttolk.ru/?p=9696, February 20). Journalist Andrei Malgin pointed out that all the elections in which Putin has been involved have been accompanied by news about assassination attempts. Malgin also recalled the bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities in September 1999 and Putin’s subsequent rapid rise to power (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/avmalgin/863149-echo, February 27). He also noted the explosion in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan on the northern rim of the Caspian Sea on February 27 that destroyed part of an apartment block and killed 10 people. The authorities said they were looking into two possible versions – suicide by a mentally unstable person or technical problems with a gas pipeline (http://ria.ru, February 28).
On February 28, Vladimir Putin shrugged off the assassination plot, saying that people in his position “must live with this.” That same day, Putin visited the site of the explosion in Astrakhan and allotted a lavish $10 million for victims of the disaster (http://www.gazeta.ru/news/lastnews/2012/02/28/n_2221177.shtml, February 28).
“The timing and the place for the report about the assassination attempt on the Russian presidential candidate Vladimir Putin make it an electoral move regardless of the veracity of this information,” Gazeta.ru asserted in an editorial. Indeed, the report came nearly two months after the initial explosion took place in Ukraine and just a week before the March 4 Russian presidential election. Also, Russian state television’s Channel One, which originally broke the news of the assassination attempt, is arguably the principal mouthpiece of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Gazeta.ru remarked that this report was primarily aimed at Putin’s support base, given that among his opponents, it evoked a deeply sardonic reaction (http://www.gazeta.ru/comments/2012/02/27_e_4013993.shtml,
Ukraine’s security services confirmed that the brothers Adam and Aslanbek Osmaev were plotting an assassination attempt, but did not provide details. Some Ukrainian sources said that “only Russian security services were investigating the case” while the Ukrainian government was keeping its distance. Nikolai Kovalev, the former director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) who is now a member of the Russian State Duma, said that Doku Umarov was trying to destabilize Russia because he was “unhappy with Russians’ embrace of stability [i.e. Putin’s presidential candidacy].” Kovalev further vilified Umarov and Russia’s civil protestors, saying that Umarov’s earlier statement about refraining from attacks on civilians because of the civil protests against electoral fraud and Putin implied an affinity between terrorists and the civil protestors (http://chechnya.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/201930/, February 27).
The long history of playing the Chechen card in Vladimir Putin’s electoral campaigns is astounding. The second Chechen war that Moscow waged against separatist Ichkeria in 1999 secured Putin’s rise to power. Nearly 13 years later, the same method is being used again to strengthen Putin’s support base among Russian voters. Even the prime minister’s close ally Sergei Mironov, who is also running for the Russian presidency, cautiously admitted that the news about the assassination attempt was announced in the run-up to the elections specifically to affect the voting (http://www.interfax.ru/news.asp?id=232903, February 27). The ex-deputy head of the Ukrainian security service, Aleksandr Skibinetsky, also confirmed it looked like a “political decision” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/rolling_news/2012/02/120227_rn_ukraine_putin_attempt_vote.shtml, February 27).
Whether there really was an assassination attempt being prepared or not, Vladimir Putin’s team has certainly attempted to make full use of it. This illuminates how surprisingly little innovation there is in Putin’s camp as it tries to retain his grip on power in Russia. Indeed, Chechen or North Caucasian rebels have invariably played some role in all electoral events in Russia in the past two decades. It appears that the powers-that-be in Moscow actually need instability in the North Caucasus for their electoral ends. The fact that they have reverted to the theme of terrorism several days before the presidential election is a sign of the perceived or actual fragility of Putin’s grip on power. If official Moscow still tries to govern the country by conjuring up the ghosts of the war that started 13 years ago, it is probably because it feels it has no credible positive and attractive political program to offer.