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Putin’s Russia: An Uneasy Idea

By January 8, 2000 No Comments

The problem with Putin is that we do not know whether he is a Hitler or a Pinochet.

— John Michael Kelly

While conspiracy theory is a common hobby these days, Occam’s razor should suggest that – for most things – there is always a simpler and more plausible explanation. Still, it does seem easier to blame everything on a hidden malevolent plot with vast unseen forces manipulating events for their secret benefit. Stupidity, coincidence and luck playa much greater role in human history than most things; and Murphy’s Law seems to be the natural governing principle for most of our species’ endeavors. Anything but the simplest Conspiracies simply do not happen, but…

Boris Yeltsin’s resignation on New Year’s Eve was a surprise, although hindsight suggests that this move was carefully planned sometime in advance. Yeltsin’s chosen replacement as President is the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. While Putin has yet to be confirmed as president by the electorate, he already has exercised considerable authority – as befits one who expects to keep the job.

During the 1980s, a British academic who specialized in the study of Russian/Soviet military history observed that the usual cycle of Russian rulers alternated between liberalizers and repressives. Nicholas II was liberal in many ways and achieved many reforms. These were entirely undone by the utterly totalitarian Lenin. Lenin’s heir, Stalin was even worse. Khrushchev brought the terror to halt, but Brezhnev locked the USSR into stasis. Andropov (despite his murderous past) made frantic attempts to arrest the decline of the Soviet system. Chernenko did little but die in office.

Gorbachev was a dedicated reformer but had little choice as the Soviet system was collapsing around his ears. To give him his due, however, the collapse was largely peaceful – a rare accomplishment when empires dissolve. Yeltsin also deserves a decent place in the history books. He twice faced down coup attempts, kept what was left of Russia largely intact and (a hideous crime rate notwithstanding) generally peaceful. Reforms continued, but at a slow pace – often much hampered by the old Communist rearguard.

What may damn Yeltsin is the manner of his retirement.

While conspiracy theories are generally so much marsh gas, the casus belli for the Chechen War that looks to secure Putin’s election could make some cynical observers more than a little suspicious. After the humiliating debacle of the 1994-96 Russian offensive on the Chechen rebels, a rematch was probably inevitable. So, why did it wait until just before an election year?

Since 1996 Chechens had engaged in sporadic terrorism on their frontier with Russia, and a feeble attempt to create an Islamic state in neighbouring Dagestan had to be quelled in the summer of 1999. However, the Russian Bear leaped on the Chechens in response to a series of horrible terror bombings in which two apartment buildings were collapsed with powerful explosions. Another apartment block was damaged in a third incident, and a bomb was found in a fourth. These attacks killed some 300 Russian civilians and were assumed to be a Chechen Militant response to the Dagestan intervention. These attacks occurred in August and September 1999.

The embarrassing question is this: Now that the Chechen capital has been ground into powder, why have there been no subsequent apartment bombings inside Russia? One would think that Chechen militants inside Russia would be eager to avenge their many dead compatriots.

Russian security cannot be so tight as to have deterred all attempts to collapse another apartment building since September 1999. There is a profound negligent character in Russia – even in Soviet days. For example, they forgot to pull a guard company off a nuclear test site before detonation. They also lost several nuclear propelled submarines to engine accidents and accidentally contaminated an entire region when carelessly stowed nuclear waste “fizzled”. (A wider account of Soviet clumsiness and carelessness might be picked up in James Oberg’s Uncovering Soviet Disasters.)

To expect modern Russian policemen to be capable of protecting every apartment building in the country is asking far too much. Had Chechen militants wanted to continue these apartment attacks (assuming they were responsible for the bombs in the first place), they could easily have done it. Even the best protected states are almost helpless against such attacks.

So why did the apartment bombings not continue? Could it be that the casus belli was a bloody-minded provocation? This suspicion is the result of some nasty cynical thinking, and of course should carry no weight whatsoever. But…