First, The New York Times ran a story under this headline: "Russian Rebels Had Precise Plan" (by C. J. CHIVERS and STEVEN LEE MYERS; published Sept. 6, 2004). Some people noted that it was almost like referring to the IRA guys as "British rebels."
Then, The New York Times ran this story: "Chechen Rebels Mainly Driven by Nationalism" (by C. J. CHIVERS and STEVEN LEE MYERS; published Sept. 12, 2004).
MOSCOW, Sept. 11 - Chechnya's separatists have received money, men, training and ideological inspiration from international Islamic organizations, but they remain an indigenous and largely self-sustaining force motivated by nationalist more than Islamic goals, Russian and international officials and experts say.
This is an interesting piece, with quite a variety of sources, ranging from the rather intangible "Russian and international officials and experts" and "three senior counterterrorism officials in Europe, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities" to the, allegedly, very real people like "Sergei N. Ignatchenko, chief spokesman for Russia's Federal Security Service," "Ilyas Akhmadov, a Chechen leader living in the United States," "Juan Zarate, an assistant secretary at the United States Treasury Department," "Dia Rashwan of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo" and a number of others. The piece also contains a reference to "an unclassified report provided by the F.S.B." and a quote from Osama bin Laden's 1997 interview on CNN.
Overall, the story and the quotes do not contradict the thesis of the lead - and yet, somehow, I felt that the reporters were being unusually kind to President Putin and the FSB.
Consider this sentence about the beginning of the second Chechen war in 1999:
After Mr. Basayev led a raid into Dagestan and bombs destroyed three apartment buildings in Russia, Russian forces poured into Chechnya again.
It isn't merely superficial (which is okay for a piece that transcends the typical recounting of the timeline of the Chechen wars) - it's weird. Do bombs drive or walk around, destroying apartment buildings? Do bombs act on their own? Even Mr. Basayev doesn't.
When the apartment buildings were blown up in mid-September 1999, roughly a month after Yeltsin unearthed Putin, it didn't occur to me to question the official version at first: maybe the Chechens indeed were behind the explosions. But very soon I realized that way too many Muscovites were talking about the FSB's role in this horror - and some of these Muscovites weren't the biggest fans of the Chechens and other ethnic minorities. So I thought, How strange - isn't it easier to blame the ones you dislike than those who are supposed to be protecting you from the ones you dislike?
In 2002, The New York Times ran a piece based on an interview with Boris Berezovsky: "Russian Says Kremlin Faked 'Terror Attacks'" (by PATRICK E. TYLER; published Feb. 1, 2002). Here's part of it, which shows that there used to be a lot more to say about those stray bombs:
LONDON, Jan. 31 — Intensifying his battle with the Kremlin, the Russian oligarch Boris A. Berezovsky said today that he was just weeks away from laying out documentary evidence that Russia's security services were involved in apartment- house explosions in September 1999 that killed more than 300 people.
In an interview here, he said his investigation of the bombings, which were ascribed to separatists in Chechnya and touched off a full-scale invasion of that rebellious republic, was the reason Nikolai Patrushev, Russia's intelligence chief, accused him last week of providing financial support to Chechen "terrorists."
Mr. Berezovsky said his evidence "is no less than the evidence the United States had that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the World Trade Center attack."
He said the key to his case was the discovery in late September 1999 that Russia's security services had placed what appeared to be a large bomb in an apartment in Ryazan, 115 miles southeast of Moscow.
When residents discovered the bomb and called the police, the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., issued a public apology and asserted that the "explosives" were actually bags of sugar tied together with wires and a detonator, a dummy used as part of a security exercise.
A number of Russian legislators called for an independent investigation of the bombings and the actions of the security service in Ryazan, but in March 2000 Parliament defeated a motion to open an inquiry. Vladimir V. Putin, a former head of the Federal Security Service, won the presidential election the same month. Mr. Patrushev succeeded him at the security service.
In the jaded politics of today's Russia, Mr. Berezovsky's claims have been treated with as much skepticism as the counterclaims of Mr. Patrushev and the security service. The fact that the charges emerged as Mr. Berezovsky was losing another battle to retain control of the independent TV6 television channel added to that skepticism.
Yet the unsolved explosions that brought terror to Russia and incited Russians against Chechens and other ethnic groups from the Caucasus stand as an enduring and troubling mystery of the Chechen conflict.
Though dozens of arrests were made in the bombings, no one has been convicted of direct complicity. Moreover, the bombings laid the groundwork for the furious military campaign against Chechnya and for the political rise of Mr. Putin, then the prime minister, whose relentless prosecution of the war garnered a surge of popular support that propelled him into the presidency.
Mr. Berezovsky said today that he had no evidence that Mr. Putin had personal knowledge of any involvement by security services in the apartment bombings, but he said Mr. Patrushev did. [...]
Mr. Patrushev, by the way, is still the head of the FSB. The list of the bad bad terror-related things that have happened during his five-year reign is impressive (via The Moscow News; unfortunately, I haven't found an English translation of the piece about Mr. Patrushev):
- Moscow Manezh explosion - 1 person killed
- Buinaksk apartment building explosion - 64
- Moscow apartment building explosions - 230
- Volgodonsk apartment building explosion - 18
- Moscow Pushkin Square explosion - 12
- Pyatigorsk train station and market explosions - 7
- Kaspiysk Victory Day explosion - 45
- Yessentuki, Minvody and Cherkessk explosions - 24
- Astrakhan and Vladikavkaz explosions - 19
- Moscow McDonald's explosion - 1
- Nord-Ost theater hostage crisis - 128
- Grozny government building truck explosion - 70
- Mozdok air base bus explosion - 18
- Moscow rock festival explosion - 16
- North Osetia police bus explosion - 3
- Mozdok hospital explosion - 50
- Yessentuki commuter train explosions - 48
- Moscow Hotel "National" explosion - 5
- Moscow subway train explosion - 39
- Grozny Victory Day explosion - 4
- twin plane crashes - 90
- Moscow subway station explosion - 11
- Beslan school hostage crisis - over 300
The FSB has a website (in Russian); closer to the bottom of their front page I found a note from 2003, which tells us that on Sept. 11, Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of what later became known as the KGB, the predecessor of the FSB, turned 126 years old. How nice.
Back to the stray bombs: on Sept. 9, 2004, the very same New York Times published an op-ed piece, "Give the Chechens a Land of Their Own," by Richard Pipes, an emeritus professor of history at Harvard and the author of "A Concise History of the Russian Revolution." In it, Pipes does mention the ambiguity of the 1999 explosions:
A clever arrangement secured by the Russian security chief, Gen. Alexander Lebed, in 1996 granted the Chechens de facto sovereignty while officially they remained Russian citizens. Peace ensued. It was broken by several terrorist attacks on Russian soil, which the authorities blamed on the Chechens (although many skeptics attributed them to Russian security agencies eager to create a pretext to bring Chechnya back into the fold). A second Chechen war began in 1999, of which there seems no end in sight.
It's interesting that C. J. Chivers and Steven Lee Myers do not mention General Lebed in their article. Their take on the end of the first Chechen war is this:
That war ended in 1996 after forces led by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander believed to have organized the siege in Beslan, recaptured Chechnya's capital, Grozny. The Russians withdrew, granting the republic de facto independence. Chechnya slipped into chaos and banditry.
This is factually true, of course, but is as incomplete as the stray bombs sentence. As I said above, the purpose of this article wasn't to reproduce for the millionth time the chronology of the Chechen wars, but still, certain points in this routine background part could have been more convincing. Here's the rest of the war account, parts of which read a little bit like a translated FSB statement:
At the time, foreign fighters expanded their influence, and Islamic charities began funneling money into Chechnya, according to the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B. The money was ostensibly for religious and aid purposes, but was diverted for weapons, uniforms and other equipment, as well as for salaries.
[...] Chechnya's period of independence, when the republic was lawless, appears to have been the peak of the transit of fighters, cash and ideology from abroad. It soon ended.
After Mr. Basayev led a raid into Dagestan and bombs destroyed three apartment buildings in Russia, Russian forces poured into Chechnya again. The Russians drove the separatists, with their Islamic fighters, into the mountains along the border and destroyed the training camps.
Russian troops, along with loyal Chechen fighters, now control almost all the republic, at least by day. The separatists, however, still carry out regular attacks.
It's strange to be reminded of General Lebed now, at the time when President Putin is scaring everyone speechless with his neo-Soviet rhetoric, most likely in order to take the focus off the Beslan tragedy and the Chechnya catastrophe. What would this country be like if Lebed survived that helicopter crash in April 2002? Here's his short bio from the BBC website:
Lebed, who came third in the Russian presidential election of 1996, was once considered a possible successor to President Boris Yeltsin.
But Lebed refused to stand again in the year 2000, saying he had work to finish in Siberia.
He was widely credited with ending Russia's 1994-96 campaign in Chechnya within a matter of months of being appointed security chief by President Yeltsin, but was ejected from office shortly afterwards.
Before that, he quelled a civil war in Moldova in the summer of 1992 as commander of Russian troops stationed there.
Lebed, who trained and served in Afghanistan from 1981-82, also won plaudits in 1991 during the coup attempt against then President Gorbachev, when he refused to deploy his troops on the coup leaders' side.
And here's a quote that ends a 1996 New York Times story by Michael Specter on the surrender of Grozny, an amazing piece that shows the magnitude of the changes that have occurred in the past eight years, not just in Russia and in the world but in the New York Times as well: Specter's "How the Chechen Guerrillas Shocked Their Russian Foes" is incomparably bolder and much more informative than many of the recent pieces, including "Chechen Rebels Mainly Driven by Nationalism."
"'Lebed is a Russian,' said Mussa Guysamo, a young fighter working in the brigade directly commanded by Mr. Basayev in the center of Grozny. 'But he is a fighter. And a fighter knows when he has lost.'"