The Domodedovo blame game

Yesterday’s terrible terrorist attack at Domodedovo has had a variety of outcomes. Some heart-warming, not least the outpouring of official and public sympathy, from governments to the individual Muscovites who drove passengers to and from the airport to save them from opportunistic fares that some taxi drivers were demanding in the aftermath. Others knee-jerk, such as the new security measures which will ensure that for the immediate future Moscow’s airports will become bottlenecked nightmares, probably with no increase in security. And others predictable but no less depressing, such as the blame game between various security agencies.

To an extent, this is always going to happen — no one wants to feel they are to blame for such a tragedy. And in this case it has become especially poignant because of the report that the authorities had been warned a week before that a terrorist attack would be launched against one of Moscow’s three main airports. In any case, though, the security agencies were already in the throes of institutional power struggles, with the domestic security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB) putting growing pressure on the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) following the expulsion of its spies from the USA last year. The FSB, after all, makes little secret of its empire-building designs and its desire to reincorporate the SVR, the Drug Control Agency and other similar spookish elements.

The FSB’s ambitions, though, are likely to be dampened — at least for a while — by the Domodedovo attack.

The first responsibility, after all, would have seemed to have fallen on the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the lead public security agency, and its Main Administration for Transport (GUT). The future of GUT chief Major-General Dmitry Sharobarov may still be in question, but in the main the MVD appears neatly to have managed to avoid any blame. If Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev has any talents, it is certainly for adroitly avoiding responsibility. Vladimir Chertok, deputy head of the Rostransnadzor transport watchdog, asserted that it was the MVD, not airport management and security, who had failed to identify the bomber, but Medvedev publicly rejected what he called attempts to “push responsibility solely onto the police.” Indeed, Medvedev charged Nurgaliev with making recommendations about disciplinary and criminal cases to be brought against MVD and transport security staff, giving him a free hand to scapegoat less-favoured underlings and the airport staff.

The FSB, as lead domestic security and counter-terrorism agency, can expect its share of criticism, even if largely behind closed doors. A half-hearted effort to use the leak about the advance warning to spin the situation as being a case of good FSB intelligence squandered by the police was squashed by Medvedev’s unexpectedly robust defence of the latter (which incidentally also plays to the theory that sees the MVD as being closer to Medvedev and the ‘civiliki’, assailed by the FSB and the harder-line siloviki, although I would rather see Nurgaliev as desperately trying to remain neutral rather than becoming one of Dima’s partisans). At the very least, though, it will either need to accept some blame or, and I would not put this past FSB director Bortnikov, attempt some high-profile operational or public relations gambit to recover lost ground.

[Postscript: I see that Bortnikov, and Investigations Committee head Bastrykin, received an indirect dressing down from Medvedev on 3 February.]

At least the SVR has reason to feel a cautious optimism. It has been under severe pressure from the FSB, which has long sought to take it over and the survival of its director, Sergei Fradkov, was in serious doubt. Early claims, possibly from FSB sources that the suicide bomber was of ‘Arabic appearance’ seem to have been calculated to try and present this as an attack inspired or organised abroad and thus something the SVR ought to have prevented. However, this version has failed to gain traction and the SVR does not appear at all harmed by the attack.

These are only some first thoughts about a specific aspect of this tragedy, at a time when the news is still breaking. More, no doubt, to follow.

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