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The Bombings That Made Putin A Hero

by Patrick Cockburn

A series of bomb attacks on civilians in Russia two and a half years ago killed 300 and set the scene for a new war in Chechnya and the sudden elevation of Vladimir Putin, a little-known intelligence officer, as the unchallenged leader of Russia.

The bombs terrified Russians, as they were designed to do, because they were left in working-class apartments. The worst was in Kashirskoye Shosse, in central Moscow, where an explosion at 5am on 13 September 1999 killed 124 people as they slept.

A wave of fear and rage swept Russia. Chechens were widely blamed. Islamic militants in Chechnya had invaded the neighbouring republic of Dagestan a few weeks before.

Russian troops were soon ordered across the Chechen border. Within weeks Mr Putin became a symbol of Russian patriotism and the most popular man in the country.

From the beginnings there were suspicions about who was behind the bombings. Foreign newspapers, in the summer of 1999, had reported that officials in the Kremlin had discussed launching a “terrorist” campaign against their own people.

When The Independent interviewed survivors of the Kashirskoye Shosse explosion before the presidential election, which was easily won by Mr Putin, many doubted the official explanation. “It was only at the beginning that we thought it was the Chechens,” said Svetlana Nikolaevna, who worked in a kindergarten. “Now we think it was people in the Kremlin administration who wanted to stay in power.”

A number of Muslims from the North Caucasus, though few from Chechnya, were arrested but security officers admitted they did not know who had given the orders for the attacks. A problem for investigators is that those who bombed the buildings may not have known for whom they were ultimately working.

 

 

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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