In the months since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, fires and explosions have occurred at a minimum of 72 military facilities within Russia—including 44 draft offices and 28 bases. A vast number of other fires and explosions have broken out at shopping centers—at least 20—other businesses, apartment blocks and agricultural facilities (Vertska.media, December 29, 2022). Some of these attacks, especially those against draft offices, are undoubtedly the work of Russians opposed to the war; and others, such as the attacks on the two air bases at the end of December 2022, do indeed appear to be the work of Ukrainian forces (Meduza, December 26, 2022).
But given the Russian propensity to blame outside conspirators for their problems, the product of a poor information environment, and particularly at a time when Moscow propagandists are whipping up anti-Ukrainian attitudes and when Kyiv officials openly declare that Ukrainian forces plan to strike “ever deeper” into Russia (Meduza, January 4), many Russians remain inclined to blame everything on Ukraine. And they are doing so even though many Russian observers are now pointing out that the overwhelming majority of these “technogenic disasters”—to use the Russian government’s term—have other causes, including aging infrastructure without adequate fire control protections, a sharp reduction in government inspections of buildings in recent years and even arson, as Russian owners torch their properties to collect insurance.
If the fires at draft offices are almost certainly the work of Russians opposed to the war rather than some Ukrainian “fifth column,” and if the explosions at Russian military bases are likely the result of Ukrainian attacks (though not necessarily given the history of explosions at such facilities caused by technical breakdowns and mismanagement), the recent spate of fires and explosions at civilian facilities, such as shopping centers and housing blocks, are most likely the result of other factors, as Russian commentators are pointing out. Similar to any large country, Russia has suffered from such disasters long before Putin decided to invade Ukraine, though even then, some Russians were inclined to blame foreign conspirators for the destruction and conclude that the authorities were hiding the facts lest their revelations undermine public confidence in the powers that be (Rosbalt, December 31, 2017; Odnarodyna.org, August 3, 2021).
Yet, by taking recent steps, the Putin regime has exacerbated this long-standing pattern. On the one hand, these measures have opened the way for even more disasters by reducing inspection regimes that had limited such problems in the past (Rosbalt, December 31, 2017; see EDM, February 22, 2018; Dw.com/ru, January 3, 2019). And on the other, they have allowed for more, but not full, coverage of what technogenic disasters have taken place. As a result, just enough articles and reports have been circulated to ensure that most Russians are aware of these catastrophes but not enough to end public suspicions that the authorities continue to hide the real causes, lest the truth embarrass the regime or its closest allies among the Russian elite (Rusmonitor.com, December 31, 2018; Charter97.org, January 20, 2019). Furthermore, while giving more coverage, Moscow has generally failed to provide complete coverage of these disasters or to bring to justice those responsible, precisely because many suspects are either part of the regime itself or closely allied to it
Given that combination, ever more experts are investigating the causes for the wave of technogenic disasters that appear to be washing over Russia. In contrast to the Russian population at large, which appears to view them as either an inevitable fact of life given the way the country is administered or as the work of Ukrainian forces, more observers are inclined to blame the government for not carrying out the needed inspections and critical repairs of these sites (Verstka.media, December 28, 2022). Others point the finger at the facilities’ owners, who, these commentators say, may be torching aging and worn-out facilities either to remove them for new construction projects or to collect on insurance policies, getting away with such crimes by blaming everything on the Ukrainians (Publizist.ru, December 13, 2022).
Three things make this discussion particularly fascinating. First, its appearance shows that the Putin regime once again has shot itself in the foot by allowing just enough information to come out to spark not only additional conspiracy thinking in the population but also suspicions among members of the elite that Moscow is hiding the truth, lest the facts undermine the regime. Second, the course of this discussion, given its focus on how the rich may be using the war to further feather their nests, suggests that many Russians are just as angry at their perceived “class enemies” as they are at foreign entities. And third, increased discussion on these disasters highlights yet another way that Putin’s war against Ukraine is coming home—and not in the way that he had hoped for but as a boomerang that may ultimately swing back to strike those who initially threw it.
How this situation will play out very much remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: Before rushing to accept Kremlin reports that this or that explosion within Russia was the result of Ukrainian actions, Western observers should carefully consider the possibility that the responsibility for such disasters lies not with the Ukrainians but with the Russians and especially with the Putin regime itself.