High-speed train No. 166, the Neva Express, was derailed by an explosion on the evening of Monday, August 13, in the Novgorod region. The explosive device, with a force equivalent to three kilograms of TNT, went off underneath the second section of the train engine. There were 241 people aboard the train; 27 were injured and six of them hospitalized, according to a report in the Vedomosti newspaper.
The media are discussing various theories about what happened and why, and trying to work out how this bombing might affect the upcoming elections.
The most frequently mentioned theories attribute the bombing to Chechen separatists, radical Russian nationalists, robbers, or organized crime groups. The Tvoi Den newspaper has even blamed the incident on “technical faults on the railroad and the train itself” – apparently questioning reports of a bomb crater at the derailment site.
The Kommersant newspaper reports that one of the first people summoned for questioning by the Novgorod regional directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB) was Salam Yunusov, leader of the Vainakh Chechen-Ingush Society’s Novogorod branch. Yunusov himself says he sees nothing unusual in this: “They might want to know whether our diaspora has any information about the train bombing. But I think it’s pointless to seek a ‘Chechnya connection’ here.”
The North Caucasus office of Radio Liberty received a phone call on August 15 from an unidentified individual who introduced himself as the deputy commander of a group called Riyadh-as-Salihin and declared that Chechen separatist guerrillas are claiming responsibility for the railway bombing. This information has not been confirmed by any other sources.
Fontanka.ru reports that this caller phoned journalist Aslan Dukayev and told him in the Chechen language that he wanted to read out a statement from the Riyadh-as-Salihin guerrilla group. The caller then switched to Russian, speaking with a Caucasus accent, and said that Riyadh-as-Salihin is claiming responsibility for the bombing, describing it as revenge for the suffering of the Chechen people. No demands or threats were made.
Dukayev told Fontanka.ru that the call came from a number belonging to the Caucasus branch of Megafon Communications. The journalist was unable to contact the caller again.
Grani.ru reports that Riyadh-as-Salihin is a battalion of suicide terrorists specializing in espionage and sabotage; it used to be headed by Shamil Basayev. This group is on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. It was responsible for the truck-bombing that destroyed part of the government building in Grozny in 2002, and suicide bombings in the Moscow metro in 2004. After the Moscow theater hostage-taking in 2002, it was reported that Riyadh-as-Salihin had claimed responsibility.
Many media outlets are saying that Riyadh-as-Salihin was involved in the theater hostage-taking, but an expert approached by Fontanka.ru maintains that Chechen guerrillas used this organization’s name to draw attention to their actions.
Speaking anonymously, this Middle East analyst, who specializes in extremist organizations, told Fontanka.ru: “Riyadh-as-Salihin translates as Followers of God’s Path. This terrorist organization is based in Jordan, with roots on the Arab Peninsula, and until recently it didn’t have a presence anywhere in Russia other than Dagestan. Riyadh-as-Salihin militants are real specialists – they have seen action in Palestine and sometimes in Algeria. This extremist organization is so well-known worldwide that other groups have sometimes claimed to be acting in its name. In fact, they have nothing to do with it, and Riyadh-as-Salihin has never confirmed their claims.”
The analyst says he doubts that Riyadh-as-Salihin was involved in the Neva Express derailment: “If they had done it, there would have been far more bloodshed. At this stage, everything I know about the train incident indicates that it was not the work of specialists.”
Ivan Safranchuk, an analyst from the World Security Institute, says that since investigators lack a chief suspect, Chechen guerrillas are taking advantage of this and attempting to claim credit for the bombing. Safranchuk told Vedomosti: “They want to demonstrate to the Russian public and to the West that the situation in Chechnya is far more serious than Moscow makes it out to be.”
The Vremya Novostei newspaper emphasizes that the possibility of Caucasus militants being involved in the bombing cannot be ruled out entirely. According to reports from operatives, the separatist leaders received around $500,000 from abroad a few months ago; and the number of terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus has increased substantially since then.
Alexei Filatov, an Alfa counter-terrorism squad veteran who fought in Chechnya and took part in the Budennovsk hostage rescue operation, has spoken out in favor of the Chechnya theory. He is quoted at the Kavkazskii Uzel website: “These thoughts are prompted by increased guerrilla activity in the North Caucasus over recent months, and a federal special operation across Caucasus regions. By commiting an act of terror in Russia, the guerrillas may have been trying to distract attention from themselves. They have used such measures on many occasions before.”
Filatov notes that there weren’t many casualties, since the bomb went off close to the tail-end of the train: “This suggests that the terrorists miscalculated the timing of the explosion, or they may have been aiming for a particular carriage.”
Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal points out that the changing tactics of the Chechen separatists in recent years also tend to support the Chechnya-related theory in this case. The guerrillas have switched to working in small groups, and it only takes one or two people to blow up a train.
Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal notes that the Neva Express makes a fine target for those who are dissatisfied with the existing political regime: “This train is used by bureaucrats who work in Moscow but live in St. Petersburg. In other words, they’re the St. Petersburg set – a symbol of those in power.” Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal notes that there haven’t been any large-scale terrorist attacks against civilians since the Beslan school siege. Terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus are mostly aimed against police and state officials. The Chechen separatists have switched to selecting their targets on the basis of social position, not ethnicity.
Another theory being discussed in the media is that the bombing may have been the work of radical nationalists.
The Novyi Region news agency reports that police have questioned Alexander Belov, leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), and leaders of the DPNI’s Novgorod branch, in an attempt to establish whether Russian nationalists may have been involved.
The Izvestia newspaper reports that the style of sabotage used in this incident clearly resembles the Moscow-Grozny train bombing that happened in the Moscow region on June 12, 2005. That was the work of two people who held nationalist views, as confirmed by printed materials found during a search of their home. But Izvestia also points out that there doesn’t seem to be an ethnic hatred motive in the Neva Express case; there is no evidence that most people on board were non-Slavs, as in the Moscow-Grozny case.
Izvestia notes that besides nationalist extremism, there is also left-wing extremism: “The greater the income gap between rich and poor – and in Russia it’s over forty-fold – the stronger the social aggression.” This is supported by the attempted assassination of RAO Unified Energy Systems CEO Anatoly Chubais on March 17, 2005 – and the fact that many Russian citizens expressed support for the suspects.
Vremya Novostei notes another interesting connection between the three attacks: Colonel Kvachkov, the alleged mastermind behind the attempt on Chubais, shared a detention cell with the Moscow-Grozny train bombing suspects, and the style of that bombing resembled the Neva Express case.
According to Kommersant, a theory being actively discussed in the Novgorod regional administration and legislature suggests that the bombing was an act of revenge by local organized crime groups against the federal government, for dismissing Governor Mikhail Prusak and launching a major anti-crime sweep in the Novgorod region.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta says that the investigation is sure to consider the hooliganism theory – especially since a similar case was recorded in the Novgorod region in 1996. Alexander Orlov, a well-known detective from the Novgorod region, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that a group of people from the village of Okulovka tried to derail the Aurora, a high-speed train, on the same section of track. They unscrewed some bolts and dragged the rails apart, hoping to loot the train after the crash. But an auto-blocking system prevented a crash; as soon as the tracks were damaged, a signal was sent out to stop the train before it reached that area.
“The hooliganism theory is unlikely,” says Alexander Orlov. “Obtaining explosives is easy enough, and there are plenty of illegal miners, but none of them are that stupid.”
Novaya Gazeta observes that the incident could have been much worse – but notes that Russia’s last major wave of terrorism, ending in the Beslan siege, started with a small bus-stop bombing on the Kashirskoe Highway. That incident also left a few people injured, with no deaths.
Alexei Titkov, an analyst from the Regional Politics Institute, told Vedomosti that the Neva Express incident wasn’t large enough to lead to any substantial state measures, but it may be used by the authorities as publicity for the war on terrorism and extremism.
Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Political Conjuncture Center, told Vedomosti about another side-effect of this incident: it has drawn a lot of attention from television viewers, and the relatively unknown Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railroads, will now become a recognizable political figure. This is an interesting point in the context of the approaching presidential election, since Yakunin is often mentioned as a potential successor.
In Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, journalist Yulia Latynina points out that no one was killed in the Neva Express incident, suggesting that this may have been a calculated effect rather than a result of errors by the terrorists.
Latynina says: “What we see here is an act of terror with minimal casualties and a maximal pyschological impact on President Putin: it’s an elite train, used by all the St. Petersburg crowd. So all of them are vulnerable.”
In Latynina’s view, the siloviki (security and law enforcement people) who run the country are very much afraid that Putin will step down, to be replaced by “the wrong kind of successor, who would cut them loose because he isn’t getting a piece of the action.” But the only way Putin could remain in power is if something truly terrible happens, “such as a major terrorist attack committed by neo-Nazis – so that Putin would have to say that he’s staying on to save Russia from radical nationalism.” Latynina’s conclusion: “A pre-terrorist situation has taken shape in Russia.”
According to Fontanka.ru, the Kremlin could use the Neva Express incident in the Duma election campaign. Some politicians approached by Fontanka.ru suggest that this bombing may be part of some plan to shape an image of the enemy in the lead-up to elections. Radical Russian nationalists could be cast as the enemy. This theory would be supported if police release identikit images of Slavic-looking men in their search for suspects.
Duma member Viktor Alksnis agrees: “I am very apprehenisive about this act of terror being linked to the forthcoming elections. It seems like the authorities are attempting to create an image of the enemy – the Russian nationalist. The election campaign will be based on fighting that image.” Alksnis told Fontanka.ru that we may soon see some radical nationalists arrested.
Duma member Oksana Dmitrieva (Just Russia) maintains that the Neva Express incident won’t have any political consequences: “The terrorists have become more active with the aim of demonstrating that Russia is unstable in the lead-up to the elections – but their attempts are unlikely to succeed. I don’t think the authorities will take advantage of these events.”
Gazeta.ru rejects the idea that the train derailment was part of a larger Kremlin plan. According to Gazeta.ru, such events indicate that the carefully-designed script for the elections could easily be disrupted by substantial and unexpected events. “Fear of terrorists could drive undecided voters into United Russia’s embrace,” or have the reverse effect – encouraging voters to seek politicians who are more convincing and relevant. Although the full consequences cannot be calculated at this stage, it’s practically obvious that such issues can hardly be anticipated in the election script.”