The Moscow Bombings of September 1999, by John B. Dunlop, is a vital source for this podcast, particularly its first chapter, titled “‘Storm in Moscow’: a Plan of the Yeltsin ‘Family’ to Destabilize Russia” (Amazon).
Also useful was Blowing Up Russia by Alexander Litvinenko with Yuri Felshtinsky (Amazon).
Vladimir Putin became the acting President of Russia on January the 1st, 2000, and he was elected President two months later, in March. A number of events during Putin’s time as leader gave people paying attention pause for thought: such as the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky after he discovered fraud in government, the 2008 war in Georgia, and the murders of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko.
On the Thames, we clapped eyes on him, and I will never forget a Londoner cheering, “Yeah, Putin”
But Putin has only really captured the world’s imagination since 2014. First with the Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Then with the apparent triumph of beating the United States to the punch by staging a military intervention in Syria in 2015. And above all, with the allegations of a Russian influence campaign intended to swing last year’s US presidential election to Donald Trump.
Visiting London with my family in 2003, I was surprised by the Russian flags along the Royal Mile, which it turned out were there to mark the State Visit of President Putin. We thought no more of it and headed by boat to Greenwich for the afternoon. Whether intentionally or not, Putin followed us that way, and while we were waiting for the return journey along the Thames, we clapped eyes on him, maybe fifty feet away, smiling his head off. A makeshift crowd of tourists and Londoners gathered jovially around, and I will never forget a Londoner cheering, “Yeah Putin!”
Such a scene is unimaginable today. And we knew nothing about what was troubling about him even then.
So, because they are largely unknown and because they were dubious, it is worth recounting the circumstances in which Vladimir Putin began his ascent to power, near the end of Russia’s chaotic first post-Communist decade, in 1999.
This article is about the struggles Putin faced as he came to power, and the help he got from a Kremlin clique which smoothed his path. It’s also about that clique’s plans for a war in Chechnya, and about the mostly forgotten War of Dagestan. Both wars, the evidence suggests, were planned by the Kremlin clique to solve their political problems. And Putin keenly prosecuted them.
1999 was Russia’s year of the three prime ministers. Two PM’s were fired, two PM’s were hired, and Vladimir Putin was the last man standing in this mix-up. In choosing a prime minister, Boris Yeltsin wanted his personal choice of his successor as president. And he did not want a candidate less than totally loyal to him. Yeltsin’s Kremlin advisers had their own reasons to fear a hostile succession. These were the terms of reference for the Kremlin’s actions that year.
But the winds were against Yeltsin and the Kremlin. One opinion poll said Yeltsin’s popularity was as low as percent. The Communist Party was attempting to impeach him, and the Prime Minister at the beginning of 1999, Yevgeny Primakov, was keeping them in his cabinet. Primakov was already popular, and this move positioned him well as a centrist before the following year’s presidential election.
Yeltsin needed a successor
Yeltsin’s Kremlin advisers had a financial dog in this fight. It wasn’t just the Communists they had to see off. More important was the man most likely to succeed Yeltsin as president, Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow. Luzhkov wanted to strip the assets of the people in Yeltsin’s Kremlin, and likely to imprison them. Under Luzhkov’s threat, the advisers too wanted a successor they could control.
In fact, the popular PM Primakov and the mayor Luzhkov joined forces when Primakov was fired in May ’99, and together they looked unstoppable. Something had to be done.
Who were these Kremlin advisers?
Russians call them “the Family,” because of their loyalty to Yeltsin. One of its most prominent members, Tatyana Dyachenko, was in fact Yeltsin’s daughter. She would later marry another member. They included some quite famous names, such as the billionaire and later exile Boris Berezovsky and the Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich. Abramovich is said to have been one of its most hardcore members, making plans to ban the Communist Party and dissolve parliament if the parliamentary elections in December ’99 went badly. Yeltsin’s daughter was heavily under the influence of her friend Berezovsky. He made dissolving parliament unnecessary by coming up with the idea of a party totally loyal to the Kremlin, which was duly created, and did its job.
Vladimir Putin too was a member of the Family. As a member of the presidential staff, he first came on Yeltsin’s radar by writing to-the-point, informative reports about Russia’s provinces. His KGB background and loyalty to the Family led to his appointment as chief in July 1998 of the Federal Security Service, the famous FSB which deals with Russian internal security.
As FSB chief, Putin owed his position in the cabinet to Yeltsin, not to the prime minister, Primakov. According to Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter, Primakov disliked Putin and sought to have him removed. By her account, one of Primakov’s gambits was to tell Yeltsin that FSB officers were utterly demoralised. Her father summoned Putin and was told that there was no truth in the allegation. This story is impossible to verify, but Putin’s mere survival, while Primakov got the boot, corroborates Yeltsin’s good impression of Putin. His position as a respected FSB chief itself gave him kudos.
Putin was politic in gaining the loyalty of other influential Family members. It was reported that Putin used to wait until Dyachenko had spoken before expressing an opinion.
And when Primakov sought Boris Berezovsky’s arrest for alleged criminality, Putin showed up at Berezovsky’s birthday party. Berezovsky later said Putin had acted courageously, and went on to explain:
[…] he did not give in to Primakov. Primakov possessed enormous power and he entered into a conflict with him.”
Putin also abolished one of the FSB’s economic sections, which helped protect Berezovsky’s companies from scrutiny. In 1999, a scandal about laundered Russian money in American banks implicated Berezovsky. It looked like he had no way of Russia with his wealth intact. He needed a successor.
All of the Family – and especially Yeltsin; Dyachenko, his daughter; and Berezovsky – had good reason to think Putin was a suitable candidate for president.
Dagestan is a republic in the Russian Federation, which is roughly the equivalent of an American state. The upper part of Caspian Sea is to its east, and Chechnya, which is another republic in Russia, is to its west. It’s right on Russia’s southern border, far from Moscow, with Georgia and Azerbaijan to the south. The 2010 census said it has a little under 3 million inhabitants, and it’s over 80% Muslim.
War broke out in Dagestan in August 1999, the same month that Putin was appointed Prime Minister. According to the Russian government, the justification for its war in Chechnya, which began the following month, was the War of Dagestan, so it is worth looking at.
The shortest possible briefing on the war is that a fundamentalist Wahhabi group called the Islamic International Brigade invaded from Chechnya. The Brigade, which was led by the Chechen Shamil Basaev and the Saudi Ibn Khattab, was officially devoted to expelling Russia and creating an Islamic union between Dagestan and Chechnya. Basaev in fact was a faithful Muslim, but not a Wahhabi. An initial force between 1500 and 3000 men invaded on August the 7th after a number of border clashes on previous days. They took control of small villages in 2 of the 41 districts in Dagestan, districts close to the Chechen border.
But to their surprise they met stiff opposition from villagers unkeen on war and Wahhabism. Then came Russian artillery and airpower, followed by an infantry counter-attack. The Wahhabi withdrawal began on August the 23rd. Basaev and Khattab and their forces withdrew by August the 26th, though there was a large-scale diversionary second invasion much further north along the Dagestan-Chechen border to help Dagestanis in the centre of Dagestan who rose with the invasion. All fighting was over in Dagestan by mid-September, and the Russians had begun an air campaign in Chechnya.
All told, the death toll was at least in the high hundreds. The Russian figures, to be taken with a little salt, are that 1500 to 2000 rebels in total died, and that 279 Russian soldiers did.
Once Russian troops had beaten the invaders back to Chechnya, this squalid conflict was directly followed by the Chechen War.
That is the superficial account of the War of Dagestan, and with it, how the Chechen War began.
But planning for conflict in Chechnya seemingly began in March 1999, when the local head of the interior ministry was kidnapped for ransom in Chechnya’s main airport. Chechnya at this time had a weak central government, with many areas under the control of warlords with a vaunted attachment to Islam. Any of these were possible perpetrators.
The plan was immediately to create a so-called sanitary cordon along the internal border with the rest of Russia, and also to seal the border with Georgia. But the Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov objected because of the cost and because the border operation was too difficult. That put paid to that until he was sacked.
The Kremlin would announce Emergency Rule
Primakov’s disloyalty got him sacked, but the tipping point came in March, when Yeltsin fell sick, and was subject to a vote of impeachment in the Duma. The Family forced Primakov’s removal and appointed the piggy-in-the-middle Prime Minister, Sergei Stepashin, on May the 12th.
Two days later, the Duma finally held its impeachment vote, which had long been in the works. There were numerous indictments, but they all failed to get the needed 300 votes. The one that came closest, which accused Yeltsin of being responsible for the first Chechen War, got 283 votes.
A leaked draft presidential decree was published soon after by the newspaper Novaya gazeta. It showed that the Kremlin would announce Emergency Rule at least till July if Yeltsin had been impeached. If Primakov had fought harder against his dismissal, the impeachment proceedings might have succeeded. The signs are that the Kremlin was getting ready to rule by decree. A retired general was brought to Moscow to be Stepashin’s deputy, in case Primakov put up a fight.
As far as Stepashin is concerned, he got the job because the other candidate was too close to Berezovsky and disliked by the Duma. He lost it because Yeltsin believed he was unwilling to fight hard enough against Primakov and Luzhkov. He rejected the cancellation of elections and the fabrication of fake compromising material against opponents. He was also becoming popular in his own right.
Much of the information about the Kremlin’s plans for Chechnya and keeping power comes from Sergei Stepashin, who was Prime Minister for less than 3 months, but before that was interior minister, and therefore closely involved in the planning.
In 2000, Stepashin told the New York Times that more ambitious planning for the occupation of the northern third of Chechnya began while he was Prime Minister, in July ’99. Evidently, the invasion by Shamil Basaev’s gang in Dagestan was only the most obvious reason to occupy Chechnya. It is true that there was a good deal of banditry, but this had been the case since 1996, when Russia withdrew. Why invade again now?
Stepashin’s fate is a reminder that Putin wasn’t just the inevitable nominee of the Family. He was also very lucky. Stepashin’s competitor for the job might have got it and held on. Primakov might have fought harder against his firing. Stepashin could have been Prime Minister on the declaration of Emergency Rule.
I have left the most intriguing of Stepashin’s comments about the planning of the Chechen War till last. A journalist asked him: did the Kremlin plan to provoke a conflict so that Putin could quickly extinguish it? This was his response:
Having provoked a war, it is difficult in that region to quickly gain a victory. […] It is another matter that certain agreements were possible, in order to destabilise the situation and to bring it under Emergency Rule.”
According to Stepashin, making things easier for Putin wasn’t the main goal. Having the option to avoid the parliamentary and presidential elections was.
Why did a journalist ask Stepashin if the Kremlin provoked the conflict? What “certain agreements”, in order to destabilise the situation, could Stepashin have been talking about?
To answer those questions, we need to know the political lay of the land in Chechnya, and also how politicians in Moscow related to their Chechen counterparts, who were warlords as much as suited-and-booted types. The conflict was even more about complex power arrangements than it was about Chechen separatism or Wahhabism, though all of these were important parts of the puzzle.
If you want a good image of how things could work between the Kremlin and Chechen leaders, consider the situation today, where the head of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, is a former member of the independence movement, and has an excellent relationship with Putin. Kadyrov is happily working within the bounds of the Russian state, while this year implementing the old time religion to the extent that he had promised to rid Chechnya of homosexuality by the beginning of Ramadan, in the pursuit of which at least three people have died.
Just as is the case now, good working relationships between Kremlin politicians and seemingly committed nationalist and Islamist Chechen leaders were entirely possible at the time of Putin’s rise. And the Kremlin strategy for keeping power took advantage of the fact.
In 1999, Chechnya was officially governed by the duly elected Aslan Maskhadov, who had led Chechnya to defeating Russia in the First Chechen War, which went on from 1994 until 1996. Like the Second Chechen War that was just about to begin, the First war was started by Yeltsin with an eye to upcoming elections. Under the Khasavyurt Accord of 1996, Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya, while Chechnya remained de facto part of the Russian Federation. A final agreement on Chechnya’s status was put off till 2001. Maskhadov had gone to Moscow to sign the treaty, and posed for smiling pictures with Yeltsin, whom he had militarily defeated. Maskhadov was hard pressed to rule, given the warlords thrown up by the war. Kidnapping and corruption was rife. Shamil Basaev, who was involved in both activities, had lost to Maskhadov in the post-war election. Religion, specifically Islam, was only one of the things between them, with Maskhadov being much more moderate. In an attempt to keep his enemy inside the tent, Maskhadov appointed Basaev as his deputy prime minister. But even while in government he formed relationships with army officers disloyal to the government, and by ’98 he had left government and was Maskhadov’s greatest rival.
Maskhadov was making efforts to create a basis for independence, including seeking relations with NATO. But he also needed not to provoke Moscow. Basaev accused Maskhadov of being too close to Moscow. But like the current head of Chechnya, Kadyrov the old independence fighter and fundamentalist, he was as interested in power and preferment as independence. The rivalry carried within it the basis for agreements of the type Stepashin talked about.
In 1998, 176 people were kidnapped. 90 of them were released that year, and deaths were rare. But it created a need for negotiations and an opportunity for Kremlin links to gangsters and warlords.
The Kremlin was undermining the moderates
Boris Berezovsky was responsible for the release of those kidnapped by Chechens. In exile from Russia in 2002, he claimed he had freed 64 people while at the Kremlin. But this role required that he maintain contact with and deliver money to Chechen Islamist leaders. On one occasion he was reported to have given $10 million to Shamil Basaev, of which he admitted giving $2 million with the excuse that it was earmarked for reconstruction work, implausible given Basaev’s corruption. Ransoms of $2.8 million and $1 million on separate occasions are recorded, the latter payment for two FSB officers and handed over by their colleagues. These are only recorded payments. A former Chechen separatist later said Berezovsky’s role with hostages paid him enormous political dividends. But this was effectively financing the warlords.
As the payment by FSB officers suggests, Putin is regarded as having been aware of the contact, as was the rest of the government. As Aslan Maskhadov put it:
It was a direct act of collusion, collusion of the Yeltsin administration, of the financial oligarchy, of Berezovsky, and of the military who shamefully lost the first war. Well, of course not without the participation of our near-sighted, radically inclined people.
To give only one dramatic example of the collusion here, we should go back to the interior ministry official whose kidnapping gave rise to the plans to occupy the north of Chechnya. Chechen politicians and warlords agreed that the kidnappers were henchmen of the gangster Arbi Baraev. And Baraev, according to Anna Politkovskaya, had a regularly renewed pass on his vehicle’s windscreen saying the driver was ‘free to go everywhere’, which as she notes was “the most cherished and respected pass” among Russian forces.
The kidnappings of Kremlin-empowered Chechens led to a situation in which an armed Russian response seemed reasonable. But those kidnappings were liberally rewarded by the Kremlin. In the Russian journalist Paul Klebnikov’s summation:
To the extent that Berezovsky represented the interests of the Yeltsin regime in Chechnya the Kremlin had been undermining the moderates, supporting the extremists financially and politically… At best, it was a misguided policy… The worst-case scenario is that the Berezovsky strategy with the Chechen warlords was a deliberate attempt to fan the flames of war.”
You might finally ask, “Why on earth would the radical Chechens like Basaev have fallen for the destabilisation strategy?” If money was not enough, consider that this was a chance to remove Maskhadov; that Stepashin was saying “We can afford to lose Dagestan”; that they thought they would get a great reception there; that the original Russian plan was to occupy only the northern part of Chechnya; that the Russians lost the First Chechen War.
The first possible evidence of Berezovsky’s possible role in organising the War of Dagestan came in September, the month after it had been fought. Recordings of telephone conversations from June between a voice sounding like Berezovsky’s and voices sounding like those of the Chechen radicals Movladi Udugov and Kazbek Makhashev were published. The two men were allies of Basaev, in an organization called the Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan. In a basic code, they were negotiating the price of an incursion by the Chechens into the neighbouring region of Dagestan. Berezovsky at first denied the voice was his and there was no truth in the story. But even in 1999, the editor of a newspaper owned by Berezovsky admitted that
[…] the Chechens were lured into Dagestan and allowed to get involved there so as to have a legal pretext to restore federal authority in the [Chechen] republic and begin the active phase of the fight against terrorists gathered in Chechnya.
But the editor gave the following attribution of responsibility:
This was clearly an operation planned by the Russian secret services […] and was approved at the very top.
Berezovsky, of course, was not far from the very top.
By 2009, another Berezovsky surrogate had gone further. Alexander Goldfarb was a friend and ally of Berezovsky in the United States. Goldfarb at one time played a courageous role in helping Alexander Litvinenko escape from Russia. But his account of Kremlin conversations with Chechen separatists put a dent in Berezovsky’s story. Goldfarb wrote that there had been a secret agreement between Wahhabi Chechen separatists and the Kremlin: Wahhabis would engage in guerrilla attacks in Dagestan, which would be met with a Russian invasion of Chechnya. The government there, which was westward leaning, and interested in joining NATO, would fall and its place would be taken by the Wahhabis. Then they would agree to remain inside the Russian Federation, in exchange for autonomy inside Chechnya and de facto Sharia law there. Goldfarb wrote that Berezovsky knew about the plan but opposed it. Goldfarb claimed that the plan was backed by Stepashin and Putin. Goldfarb’s logical source for this story was Berezovsky. To summarise: by Goldfarb’s account, which is open to grave doubt, if his friend Berezovsky did not like it, he certainly went along with it.
Stepashin talked about “certain agreements”. Berezovsky said, “That was an absolutely professional operation of the FSB, without a doubt.” The only difference between the accounts of Berezovsky and Stepashin is who they blame for the operation: they both in effect say, “Not me, someone else did it.” But no one denies the Kremlin was up to its neck in it.
Part of the deal between the Kremlin and Chechen fighters seems to have been struck in a villa in the town of Beaulieu on the French Riviera in the early morning of the 5th of July. French intelligence kept an eye on the villa because it belonged to an arms-dealer. A businessman emerged from the villa one day, and collected Anton Surikov, an officer of Russian military intelligence, at Nice airport. A little later, the most wanted man in Russia, a Chechen commander named Shamil Basaev, arrived at Beaulieu port and went to the villa. An officer of Russian military intelligence, Anton Surikov, had in the past been a comrade of, and in fact friendly with, the man who by 1999 was the most wanted man in Russia, Shamil Basaev. The Russians and the Chechens had been on the same side fighting against Georgia in 1993, during the early post-Soviet conflict, and this was when Surikov and Basaev met. Shortly before the meeting, Surikov went in a Rolls Royce to collect a man whom French intelligence identified as Andrei Voloshin, the head of the Russian Presidential Administration and another key member of the Family, and they returned to the villa. Here is an account of the meeting from the Russian magazine, Versiya:
All night long at the villa, something was taking place. The watchfulness of the guard at the villa was elevated and a strong magnetic ray spread out onto the territory around it so that mobile telephones in a radius of several metres did not work. In the morning, the same Roll Royce sped to the airport, and the man similar to Voloshin flew to Moscow. In a day’s time all of the villa’s residents had left… By accident or not, but after a time, in August, there occurred the incursion of the band of Shamil Basaev into Dagestan.
It is necessary to be precise about the following facts. Shockingly, the journalist Boris Kagarlitsky, who studied the Beaulieu meeting made the allegation that the same system that made jammed mobile phones inadvertently made it easy for French intelligence to eavesdrop on the Beaulieu meeting. And the academic John Dunlop, whose book The Moscow Bombings of September 1999 is a fundamental source for this podcast, writes there that a French intelligence official told “an experienced Western academic”, who I think is likely to be Dunlop himself that “French intelligence does indeed possess evidence that coincides roughly with what Boris Kagarlitskii wrote”. As an ordinary citizen, allow me naively to say that the way intelligence agencies of the East and West hang on to material of this type, potentially useful for blackmail and counter-blackmail, but for the public static and useless, fills me with disgust. There is often danger in its release, but always greater danger in its concealment.
If Berezovsky’s dealings with Chechen gangsters, and the Beaulieu story, sound hard to believe, it is worth bearing in mind the Kremlin’s puzzling reaction to the widespread foreknowledge of the likelihood of an incursion into Dagestan. After the invasion, Putin’s predecessor as FSB director noted that the FSB gave accurate warnings about how events would develop: there would be “the entry of an armed group into one or another village, its seizure, then answering artillery fire […] and an attempt by the bandits to draw the population onto their side.” An official in Dagestan said everyone knew a war was coming by springtime, including the women working at the bazaars. But as that official noted, the Kremlin’s reaction was to withdraw troops from the Dagestan-Chechen border. Already in June control of the border was transferred from specialist border guards to the local police. And finally, when Shamil Basaev’s men invaded Dagestan, both Special Forces and local police were ordered not to fight.
Time magazine talked to a Russian Special Forces commander who said that as the Chechens were preparing to withdraw from Dagestan, “he had Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev in his sights… With a simple squeeze of his finger [he] could take out Basaev… But [he] says that he received an order over his walkie-talkie: ‘Hold your fire’.” The Chechens left under Russian helicopters.
After some border clashes from August the 4th onward, Shamil Basaev’s men invaded Dagestan on the 7th. The militants were beaten out of Dagestan by September 14th, and Russia began an aerial bombing campaign in Chechnya which lasted until the 28th. Altogether, up till the 28th of September, more than 3000 people died in the War of Dagestan.
Everyone knew a war was coming, including the women in the bazaars
And while all this was going on, Vladimir Putin was being placed in power. Yeltsin started making arrangements to cashier Stepashin on the same day as the border clashes began, the 4th. On the day Putin was nominated, he chaired a Security Council meeting. Yeltsin wrote in his memoirs: “Putin turned to me and requested absolute power to conduct the needed military operation. […] I supported him without hesitation.” In the memoir written to introduce him to the world, Putin stated he had “to a large degree” been responsible for the conduct of the war.
On the 16th of August, he was very narrowly confirmed as Prime Minister by the Duma: he needed 226 votes and got 233. The vote’s narrowness is a reminder that it is a mistake to see the Kremlin Family’s deals and synthetic war as exclusively for the benefit of Putin. Emergency rule could as easily have been introduced. In the event, Putin has not looked back.