INTERVIEW: 1999 Russia terror attacks allowed Putin to seize power, says Professor Aslan

The first explosion occurred on August 31, 1999 in a shopping center in Moscow. Compared to other explosions, it had little power and did less damage, although it claimed one human life. Therefore, some do not include it in the series of subsequent attacks on residential buildings. 23 years later, is it clear whether there really was a direct link to the far more tragic events of September?

Yes, it is obvious because that first explosion on August 31, 1999 had similarities to other attacks in September of the same year. Most likely, with a ninety-five percent probability, it was the first attack that then resulted in the other attacks mentioned.

The balance of five explosions in Moscow, Bujnaksk and Volgodonsk was extremely tragic. 307 people died and more than a thousand were injured. What was the origin of such a high number of victims and could it be at least partially reduced, if we take into account the more than three-week interval of these explosions?

I don’t know if it could have been prevented. It is questionable whether those behind these attacks aimed to limit the number of victims, or whether they were more interested in making the number of victims as high as possible. Let’s not forget that those attacks took place in residential buildings. If I’m not mistaken, they took place early in the morning when people were still sleeping, so the goal was clear – to cause the death of as many people as possible.

The attacks, along with Islamist separatists’ efforts to expand armed activities from Chechnya to Dagestan, led to the so-called Second Chechen War. To what extent did they represent for the then Russian leadership only an appropriate opportunity for a military solution to the situation in Chechnya, as they strengthened the legitimacy of such an operation in the eyes of the Russian public?

In 1999, after the first Russo-Chechen war, few in Russia wanted to go to a new war in the North Caucasus. Social sentiment was clearly anti-war. The retreat from Chechnya, which took place in 1996, was essentially quite humiliating for Russia. Therefore, it was necessary for the Russian society to be struck with the most sensitive blow possible, and it was struck precisely during the attacks in Moscow, Bujnaksk and Volgodonsk. Along with attacks by Chechen-Dagestani fighters in Dagestan, it was a legitimate reason for the newly minted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to show himself as a strong leader and launch an offensive in Chechnya. Although he launched the offensive, in the first months it did not appear that there would be any massive attack against the Chechens. Rather, it was presented as an effort to create an impact corridor, an impact zone in the north of Chechnya, in the north of Terek, so that similar attacks do not occur. Putin phased it. At first it was a limited operation to create a buffer zone, only then it became clear that the Russian army aimed to occupy Chechnya, which resulted in thousands more wasted lives on both the Russian and Chechen sides.

The official conclusion of the investigation is that Islamists from the North Caucasus were behind the 1999 attacks. However, there are many conjectures, speculations and wild conspiracy theories. How credible was the investigation? Do you yourself see any significant question marks in its course and conclusions?

The investigation was not credible. The details were beautifully described by Yuri Felštinský and Alexander Litvinenko in a book published in Czech under the title Russia in Flames. Even today, many think that these were not wild conspiracy theories, but that the FSB was behind the attacks. It is the handwriting of the FSB, I also wrote about it in my 2010 book about the Chechen conflict. Everything points to the fact that either the FSB or some groups that were directed by the FSB were behind the attacks. By the way, those who were accused were not even Chechens, but Karachays and members of the North Caucasian peoples from among the jihadists, who at that time had no connection with the Chechens. Let us realize that violent Chechen separatism was not intertwined with North Caucasian jihadist militancy. With the exception of the Chechen-Dagestan fighters, he operated independently, and there were no established jihadist fighters in the Northwest Caucasus at that time. So with a ninety-five percent probability it can be said that the FSB was behind the attacks in 1999.

You yourself have already mentioned that the crisis significantly strengthened the support of the then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who sat in the prime minister’s chair for only three months. Can it be considered a key event that opened the way for the current Kremlin ruler to gain power hegemony?

Certainly. What happened in 1999 helped Putin present himself as a strong leader capable of saving Russia from terrorists, jihadists and so on. This was the key event that allowed him to seize power and gain strong support in Russia itself from the position of a strong leader. I think that is how it was intended by the FSB. Recall that Putin came from the ranks of the FSB, he was a Russian intelligence officer who had good connections in the country’s political establishment. So what happened in 1999 was orchestrated so that Putin not only took over, so to speak, power from Boris Yeltsin, but also to gain strong support across Russian society, and it basically succeeded.

Today, after more than two decades, how are the events of the late summer of 1999 perceived in Russian society?

I think that the events of 1999 are of interest to few people in contemporary Russian society. Those who followed the events at the time, for example the intelligentsia or people who perceived what was happening in Russian politics, already understood years ago that the explosions were probably the work of the FSB. A series of controversial events followed, such as the crash of the Kursk submarine, the crew of which was essentially sacrificed because Putin refused Western help in an attempt to protect classified information about the Kursk’s systems. Or, for example, the events in Beslan in 2004, before that the events in the theater in Dubrovka from 2002. There were more similar very strange events that Putin was behind or decided on and cost the lives of thousands of people. So I think a lot of people see 1999 as kind of a vanguard of what happened in the next two decades. But it cannot be said that it would somehow bother the Russians at the moment.

Source: EuroZprá by

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