First thoughts on the Putin assassination plot

There have already been some excellent first-response pieces on today’s news of a Chechen plot to kill Putin being busted in Odessa, of which perhaps the best I’ve come across so far was from Ben Aris in BNE. (I’m sure there are other, equally splendid pieces already out there , too, for that matter.) I don’t want to reinvent any wheels here, so instead just want to make a few initial observations:

♦ Now the drugs don’t work… I’m willing to accept that this was a real plot, not some complete fabrication (as some seem to imply). On the other hand, the news was obviously held back with the aim of seizing the news cycle just before the elections. This is not exactly unique to Russians, but considering the wide scale skepticism, even downright disbelief with which the revelation has been greeted in Russia, this does not seem to have been an especially effective tactic. To be honest, how many times can you play the same kind of card? I think at best it will be a polarizing factor: those who already thought Russia was at risk from enemies without and within and needed Putin’s strong leadership to keep it safe will feel vindicated… but so too will those thinking that the regime is a collection of cynical manipulators and untrustworthy opportunists who need to be toppled. Overall, then, this just underlines something that has been made clear in a variety of other ways: that many of the old political tactics don’t work any more (or at least don’t work as well) and the political technologists of the Kremlin (Surkov and Volodin alike) have lost their seemingly effortless control of the Russian zeitgeist.

♦ Where have all the cowboys gone? The Chechens seem to have lost a great deal of their old tradecraft, largely because of a deliberate and pretty successful campaign to isolate, turn, seize or kill their most effective operators. Smuggling a suicide bomber into Moscow and killing civilians is — relatively — depressingly easy. Taking out Putin would be a very difficult task and these plotters didn’t stand a chance. Indeed, for all the talk of their intended use of anti-tank mines capable of “tear apart a truck” (which in any case they’d be very unlikely to get anywhere near Putin’s armored Mercedes), it is worth remembering that the plot was quite literally blown when home-made explosives they were making exploded in their apartment in Odessa. They clearly lacked enough military-grade weapons and were resorting to having to make their own and would then have had to transport that internationally to Moscow…

♦ There will be blood… Speaking of the Chechens, while this attack would be fully in keeping with Doku Umarov’s recent pledge not to attack civilian targets, I wonder how long that resolve will last given how difficult it is to attack meaningful hard targets outside the North Caucasus. Were I feeling especially Machiavellian, I’d even suspect that on one level Umarov — who is relatively weak, has always been an advocate of indiscriminate attacks and probably made his recent statement largely at the behest of other North Caucasus insurgent leaders — might not be too unhappy to be given an excuse to resume the old campaign. I don’t see likelihood of a change in policy tomorrow, but after the re-election of Putin, we may see him telling the Russians that they have disappointed him by not changing regime and a return to a policy of civilian attacks. That said, we shouldn’t get panicked: the Chechens’ supply of would-be suicide bombers is limited and the security of their organization and communication have suffered of late.

♦ It wasn’t me… The FSB clearly is positioning itself to claim the credit for this, although beyond confirming the identities of the arrested suspects, it’s hard to see quite what it did. It was the Ukrainians who did the lifting on this one (on that, more below). They and the FSO (the Federal Protection Service, of which the Presidential Security Service is a part) can simply feel reassured that this is a plot they don’t have to worry about. I can’t help thinking that, come next week, the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) might find itself having to field some tough questions. Again. Two of the terrorists came from the UAE via Turkey, one being a Kazakh citizen; another apparently spent time in the UK (the initial claim was that he actually learned chemistry for the construction of explosives at the University of Buckingham although I understand they say he did not actually study there or only very briefly). In other words, they are exactly the kind of militant diaspora radicals the SVR is meant to be monitoring (and Osmayev, the bomb-maker, was on an international wanted list) — yet all three could assemble in Odessa apparently with the SVR none the wiser. One one level this is unfair, as it can hardly track every Chechen radical, blowhard and sympathizer across the globe, but given a recent spate of body blows and a lack of successes, the SVR and its director Mikhail Fradkov is arguably facing another carpeting, whether public or private.

♦ Friends in low places… One of the elements of the story that hasn’t yet been given much prominence is the Ukrainian role. Not just in actually arresting the terrorists — it’s hardly in their interests to let bomb-makers run about their country — but in being so willing to let the Kremlin run the story. They let them dictate the time of release and, after a little hesitation (when an SBU — Ukrainian Security Service — spokeswoman initially held back from confirming to the BBC that the plotters wanted to kill Putin before later getting back on message) have stood squarely behind the Russian line. They also gave Russian Channel One TV access to the confessions (or maybe ‘confessions’) of the alleged terrorists. In short, this is an interesting example of the new Ukrainian politics, happy to be a friend to the Kremlin.

More on this fascinating story no doubt to follow…

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