In the last 24 hours alone (January 30–31), a string of anonymous phoned-in bomb threats forced the evacuations of multiple schools, hospitals and other public places in the Russian cities of Krasnoyarsk (Siberia) and St. Petersburg (Ngs24.ru, Fontanka.ru, January 31, 2019). The recent bomb threats in Krasnoyarsk represent the latest in a months-long campaign of such menacing telephone calls all across Russian regions far from Moscow. But until now, coverage of these bomb threats in Siberia and the Far East by central Russian media has been decidedly meager. With the bomb threats now having reached St. Petersburg (the “Northern Capital”), however, a far larger audience in Russia has become aware of this concerning trend, putting increasing pressure on the authorities in Moscow to act.
Telephone bomb threats became widespread starting in the summer of 2017. All of them ultimately turned out to be false, but each incident led to significant disruptions. Thousands of hospitals, schools, trade centers, public buildings and, in total, more than a million Russians had to be evacuated between September 2017 and September 2018 (MBK, Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, September 10, 2018). Initially, most of these calls targeted public sites out in the provinces and smaller cities. But they quickly started spreading to major metropolitan areas. Those interested in destabilizing Russia or who simply enjoy causing havoc discovered that calling in a fake bomb threat would gain the attention of the central authorities (RBC, November 28, 2018; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, November 29, 2018).
The number of anonymous threats forcing these evacuations is staggering. Novaya Gazeta reports that 28 hospitals in St. Petersburg were emptied, along with dozens of other trade centers and schools in the past few days (Novaya Gazeta, January 31, 2019). The Moscow paper does not provide details as to the number of people affected, but it must be in the tens of thousands if not more in St. Petersburg alone.
The St. Petersburg evacuations came immediately after the publication of a January 30 report about telephone threats and evacuations in Vladimir, Murmansk, Novgorod, Tambov, Pskov, Arkhangelsk and Astrakhan oblasts (TASS, January 30, 2019). And those came on the heels of recorded forced evacuation of six hospitals in Irkutsk, more than 30 different sites in Blagoveshchensk, as well as several city government buildings in Chita (Interfax, January 25, 2019). Other accounts of similar threats and evacuations throughout Siberia and the Russian Far East around the same time could also be found in MBK (MBK, January 28, 2019).
Journalist Anastasiya Olshanskaya has been reporting on these developments east of the Urals (MBK, January 28, 2019). Among the calls and evacuations there in the last few weeks, she records 31 in Khakassia, involving 15,000 people (19rus.info, January 28, 2019); 50 sites in Omsk (Ngs55.ru, January 28, 2019); 40 in Kemerovo (Donday.ru, January 28, 2019); 18 in Krasnoyarsk and 50 in Novosibirsk. A week earlier, Olshanskaya continues, there were telephone bomb threats and evacuations in many other regions and cities in Siberia and the Far East, as confirmed by local news agencies and a few outlets in Moscow. The last great wave of such threats had occurred in 2017–2018 (Sibreal.org, Tomsk.gov.ru, Interfax, Prmira.ru, Gorno-altaisk.info, Stoletie.ru, January 28, 2019; Vk.com, January 27, 2019).
While no summary figures have yet been published, as many as half a million Russian residents may have been discommoded in the last two weeks alone. Far more serious than even that disruption, however, are three related developments, which some of the stories listed above are beginning to talk about. First, the authorities seem powerless either to prevent such threats or to distinguish those that are real from most, which clearly are not. As a result, officials and law enforcement have no choice but to—in every single case—evacuate all buildings threatened. Yet, that sweeping and disruptive approach ends up further encouraging those engaging in what Russians now call “telephone terrorism.”
Second, only on the rarest of occasions have the Russian police or security services been able to identify where the telephone calls came from. Most of the time, they have ended up blaming the “enemy of the day,” such as Ukraine (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, November 29, 2018) or some other country. Such dubious charges have, in turn, unsettled many Russians, who have come to conclude that the authorities—for all their vaunted power—are incapable of protecting the lives and property of ordinary citizens. Naturally, this has further undermined public confidence in the siloviki (security services personnel) and the ruling regime as a whole.
And third, while none of the threats have yet proved real, the dramatic increase in their number over the last several weeks has forced the police and the Federal Security Service (FSB) to throw enormous resources at dealing with the problem. That has had two consequences. On the one hand, it means that these forces are not able to focus on other issues; and if 2017–2018 is any guide, the number of unsolved ordinary crimes may spike upward. And on the other hand, the concentration of the siloviki on this problem might actually make it easier, than would otherwise be the case, for a real terrorist cell or individual to carry out a successful attack in a different way, without warning.
Russian officials are clearly increasingly worried about all these possibilities. Their response so far has been to provide far more detailed information now than they did in 2017–2018 about cases of telephone terrorism and the inability of the police to find the perpetrators. Yet, while such transparency is welcome in terms of greater media freedom, it may have exactly the opposite effect from what they intend, at least in the short term. Thus, even more Russians may be gripped by fear over risks to their security. And more ominously, the greater media attention to this nationwide problem might end up encouraging both more fake reports about the planting of bombs in public spaces as well as, possibly, the onset of a real bombing campaign by genuine terrorists.