Putin Assassination Plot: Credible Threat or Pre-election Ploy?

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Alexsey Druginyn / RIA Novosti / Reuters

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on military-technological cooperation at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside of Moscow, on Feb. 27, 2012

At first, police in Ukraine said a gas leak caused the explosion soon after New Year's Eve. A few days later, they said it was a clumsy bombmaker, who was perhaps looking to blow up a stadium or trying to kill a shipping boss in the port city of Odessa. Finally, on Monday, police dropped a bombshell of their own: the explosion that tore through an Odessa apartment on Jan. 4 was part of a plan to assassinate Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. With a week to go before Putin's expected victory in Russia's presidential election, his spokesman confirmed that he was the target of an assassination plot. The bad guys, predictably, were Chechens with ties to the West.

The source of this latest version of events is Russia's state-run Channel One network, the government's leading mouthpiece. Rather than present the facts as breaking news, it ran a four-minute, documentary-style report showing the alleged mastermind, Adam Osmayev, battered and bruised, confessing to the assassination attempt in front of the cameras. "The final aim was to go to Moscow and try to carry out the assassination of Prime Minister Putin," the 31-year-old said.

An undated TV grab from Russia's Channel One shows a man identified as Adam Osmayev
Channel One / AFP / Getty Images

Osmayev, the report said, had lived for many years in London, home to Putin's worst political enemies, and was acting on the direct orders of the Chechen terrorist leader Doku Umarov. "Our deadline was after the elections of the Russian President," on March 4, Osmayev told the news channel. One of his alleged accomplices, a Chechen named Ruslan Madayev, 26, was killed when the bomb he was building in a rented Odessa apartment accidentally exploded, causing a fire that gutted the building. A third suspect, a 28-year-old Kazakh named Ilya Pyanzin, suffered severe burns and was hospitalized. He was also shown in the report reciting a confession: "They told us, 'First go to Odessa and learn to make bombs.' After that, later, in Moscow, you will carry out sabotage on economic sites. Later, the assassination of Putin."

The Ukrainian secret service, known as the SBU, allegedly found a laptop in Osmayev's possession that contained several videos of Putin getting into his car, surrounded by bodyguards, and of his cortege driving through city streets. "These people were studying not from one example but several," an officer with the Russian secret service, the FSB, said while showing the videos to a Channel One reporter.

Some reminder of the terrorist threat seemed predictable ahead of the elections. Umarov, Russia's most-wanted terrorist, has taken responsibility for most of the suicide attacks the country has seen in the past decade. That includes the twin subway bombings that killed at least 40 people in Moscow in 2010 and the suicide attack in the arrivals hall of Moscow's biggest airport, which killed at least 37 people last year. This month, however, Umarov released a video ordering his terrorist network to call off all attacks against Russian civilians. He said the wave of protests against Putin's government in December proved that Russians do not support the regime. "The civilian population are also hostages of the same regime that is today cruelly fighting a war against Islam," Umarov says in the video, which was posted on YouTube on Feb. 2. "Our religion therefore orders us to protect this civilian population." He then instructed his fighters to limit their terrorist attacks to Russian security forces and government officials.

Putin, in other words, was still fair game. But the use of operatives from the West has never been a trademark of Umarov's brand of terrorism, which is a homegrown jihadist movement with the goal of creating an Islamist state in the Caucasus. So the report's claim that the brains behind the plot against Putin lived and studied in London seems odd, and could allow for the circle of suspects to include Putin's favorite bogeymen. For years, Putin has been seeking the extradition of two London residents whom the Russian government has accused of trying to foment an armed coup and supporting Chechen terrorists: Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch who helped bring Putin to power before falling out with him in 2001, and Akhmed Zakayev, the Prime Minister of the Chechen government in exile. Both of them have political asylum in the U.K.

The Channel One report did not link either man to the assassination plot. But when TIME reached Berezovsky on Monday, he said he expects that once again "all clues will lead back to London." Recent reports on Russia's state media have already suggested that Berezovsky is supporting the ongoing protests against Putin in an attempt to overthrow the government. Last month, Berezovsky called on Putin to resign in an open letter, saying, "Vlad, it is still in your hands to avoid a bloody revolution."

So it did not take long for Putin's allies to start drawing links between the assassination plot and the recent antigovernment protests in Moscow. "These massive protests ... are just what Umarov wants," Nikolai Kovalyov, a lawmaker for Putin's United Russia party and former head of the FSB, said on Monday. "But Russians' choice for stability is not what he wants. That is where the attempted terrorist attacks are coming from," he told the state news agency Itar-Tass.

But speaking by phone from London on Monday, Berezovsky denied any links to the protests in Moscow or to the assassination attempt. "I am an Orthodox Christian, so I renounce violence in principle," he said. More likely, he said, the assassination plot "is another attempt to say, 'Look how important our dear leader is, look how much danger he is in.' Of course, the educated people will only laugh at this. But for the louts, it works. They're shown the same old threats, the Chechens, the awful Berezovsky and his London friends, and the desire kicks in to protect the dear leader."

Other opposition figures also speculated that the assassination plot could be a pre-election maneuver meant to shore up support for Putin. "It's the question of the day," wrote Oleg Kozyrev, a popular opposition blogger. "Was the plot against Putin foiled or made up?" One of the leaders of a Russian opposition party, Vladimir Milov, pointed out that the timing of the news looked suspicious. "They already revealed a 'plot against Putin' before the elections four years ago," Milov wrote on Facebook. Indeed, on election day in 2008, Russian police reportedly arrested a 24-year-old Tajikistan citizen suspected of plotting to shoot Putin with a sniper rifle in the Kremlin.

Considering Putin's latest poll numbers, however, he hardly needs to invent assassins in order to win the election next week. The latest survey by the independent Levada Center polling agency, which was released on Feb. 24, showed that two-thirds of the respondents who had made up their minds said they were voting for Putin.

But for those who haven't made up their minds, the alleged plot will bring back memories of the Chechen threat, which set the stage for Putin's win in the presidential election in 2000, when he played up his image as a wartime leader. His campaign this time around has not been subtle in reminding voters about this. In an article published in the Izvestiya Daily on Jan. 16, Putin recalled a message intercepted by the FSB in the 1990s from a terrorist leader in Chechnya. The message was that "Russia is weak as never before. Now we have our one and only chance to take the North Caucasus away from the Russians," Putin wrote. In the end, he added, Russia managed to defeat the rebels and retain the unity of the Russian state. "Few people now remember how difficult it was," he lamented. But whether it is real or not, the assassination plot will surely help remind them.