Thoughts On Dubrovka

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 4

The long article on the Dubrovka hostage taking incident by former Chechnya Weekly editor John Dunlop, published recently as a three-part series by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has stirred considerable interest. Dunlop’s article is summarized in the January 21 issue of Chechnya Weekly; readers who wish to study his complete text can find it on the RFE/RL website.

Part 1 of the article is at:

http://www.rferl.org/reports/corruptionwatch/2003/12/42-181203.asp

Part 2 is at:

http://www.rferl.org/reports/corruptionwatch/2004/01/1-080104.asp

Part 3 at:

http://www.rferl.org/reports/corruptionwatch/2004/01/2-150104.asp

Comments by other specialists, and Dunlop’s response, appeared in the January 18 and January 22 issues (numbers 8021 and 8027) of Johnson’s Russia List. However, as this edition of Chechnya Weekly goes to press, those issues do not yet seem to be accessible via Johnson’s website, which can be found at: http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/default.cfm.

The complex and mysterious events of October 2002 demand considerably more serious and detailed study. What follow are simply one observer’s reflections on the points that have been made so far.

What is most striking about the discussion at this point is that no serious, independent observer has come forward to deny that agents of the Russian secret services were present among the Dubrovka hostage takers–apparently even in commanding positions. Nevertheless, one should take seriously the argument that these individuals were not necessarily 100 percent loyal assets of the secret services, but possibly independent agents with dubious loyalties and agendas of their own. History provides many examples of such rogue assets emerging in attempts by security agencies to infiltrate subversive organizations. Against that argument, however, must be weighed the evidence that some of the hostage takers were people who were being held captive by the Russians in the weeks and months that immediately preceded the Dubrovka event. It seems more likely that the Russian authorities actually encouraged and assisted the seizure of the theater than that they merely refrained from intervening and stopping it.

From the 1999 apartment bomb hoax in Ryazan, it would seem that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is quite willing to risk appearing incompetent (and even worse) in order to orchestrate events that it can invoke to justify its Chechnya policies. Admittedly, the FSB’s planners must have realized that a false-flag hostage taking would be more complex and uncertain than an anonymous bombing. But they must have been emboldened by the PR success that they scored in 1999, even with their embarrassment in Ryazan. And for Dubrovka they were careful to use agents who were ethnically Chechen (or half-Chechen), providing more “deniability.”

Dunlop’s suggestion that advocates of peace talks were gaining ground within the Putin administration in the fall of 2002 has been challenged. But that suggestion need not be true for the rest of Dunlop’s theory to hold together. Consider the situation in the summer and fall of 1999: The “doves” were clearly not gaining ground within the Kremlin during that period, but the FSB seems to have found it worthwhile to concoct the Ryazan bomb hoax anyway. In 2002 the key decision makers in Moscow may have already been completely inhospitable to any peace negotiations. But for that very reason they may still have found it useful to have another Chechen terrorist outrage to whip up public hysteria, just as they successfully used the apartment bombings and invasion of Dagestan for that purpose in 1999. No matter what was or was not happening in the murky world of Kremlin court politics, opinion polls showed that public sentiment was indeed turning against the war in the months preceding the Dubrovka episode–and Moscow’s power structures, including the FSB, have put considerable effort into manipulating public opinion. Dubrovka gave them a powerful new tool for doing that both at home and abroad, where it helped consolidate the distorted image of all Chechen separatists as Wahhabi zealots indistinguishable from the terrorists of al Qaeda.

After a decade of struggle, such genuine terrorists as Shamil Basaev and his followers would seem quite capable of devising bombs that work if they really want them to. The fact that some of the bombs planted in Moscow in the fall of 2002 failed to explode–but not all of them–is a challenge to all the competing theories. Those who reject Dunlop’s theory need to provide a better explanation for the failures of the bombs outside the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall and a downtown subway. They must also explain the Kommersant report that sources from Russian security agencies admitted that at least some of the bombs planted in Dubrovka were dummies.

Another consideration is the extraordinary hyper-sensitivity of the Moscow authorities to any serious discussion of the Dubrovka mystery–including the mysterious deaths, beatings and arrests of several dissident Russians who have seriously tried to investigate it. We have seen not only the trumped-up prosecution of dissident lawyer Mikhail Trepashkin, but also apparently deliberate attempts to suppress evidence that he wanted to share with the authorities about suspicious Chechens such as Abubakar. This of course reinforces the likelihood that Abubakar was an FSB or GRU agent. Also continuing to strain credibility is the claim of the Russian authorities that every single one of the hostage takers had to be killed, that none of them were captured or could have been captured alive, even though at least some had been disabled and presented no immediate danger. As with the 1999 bombings, the authorities seem to have taken special pains to make it hard to uncover the full truth.

It is crucial to keep in mind that Dunlop does NOT claim that the Russian security agencies were in total control of the Dubrovka drama, but that they simply dictated every move in a scenario that unfolded precisely according their prearranged script. What happened, in his view, was not a fully successful conspiracy either by the Russian siloviki or by Basaev’s people. The latter seem to have “outplayed” the siloviki in a game of chess, as Dunlop puts it–but the siloviki and Putin nevertheless ended up gaining enormously from the way that game actually ended. Thus the final result differed from what any of the competing parties originally intended, as is usually the case in war and politics.

Though much of the Dubrovka incident remains opaque, the idea that it was a purely Chechen enterprise with no involvement whatsoever by the Russian authorities requires that we ignore major pieces of the factual record. That idea is therefore inherently less plausible than Dunlop’s explanation.