The Plot to Kill Putin

Any remotely dedicated Russia-watcher will tell you they had a good laugh when they heard that Russian and Ukrainian security services had allegedly foiled a plot to kill Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

This, dear readers, is classic Russian pre-election propaganda at its best, filled with holes and remarkably unbelievable coincidences.

The saga began when Russian state television’s premier Kremlin mouthpiece, Channel 1, “broke” the report early Monday morning. The minutes-long news segment featured members from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) rummaging through an Odessa apartment after an accidental explosion leveled the place and killed one of the three men inside. After some presumably intense investigation, it emerged that the men were actually preparing explosives to transport to Moscow with the intent of killing Putin.

But that was early January. And in the time between then and February 27, the day of the report, Ukrainian media, citing local officials, had already reported several different stories: first, the men were allegedly preparing a hit on a local shipping boss, then, it turns out, they were planning to strike a densely populated public area in the city. But it was only on Monday that Ukrainian officials confirmed the men were, in fact, planning an assassination on the Russian president-to-be.

Everything about the news segment was fishy – not least the open, apparently camera-friendly confession made by the alleged ringleader, 31-year-old Chechen Adam Osmayev, who originally fled the scene of the explosion but was caught earlier this month. Imagine a major Western television network – CNN, BBC, France 24 – airing the confession of a hitman sent to kill U.S. President Barack Obama before any meaningful investigation had been carried out. Osmayev, battered and bruised from the apparent explosion, spoke steadily and without much emotion – almost as if he didn’t care that security services had just busted open the most daring assassination attempt in recent history, one which undoubtedly would’ve vaulted his name into the annals of history.

Then there’s the group’s alleged connection to Doku Umarov, leader of Russia’s homegrown Islamic insurgency, the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate, and the country’s most wanted man. Channel 1 reported that the other survivor, Kazakh citizen Ilya Pyanzin, said Umarov had dispatched the men himself to dispose of Putin. At first glance, this might add up: Umarov and the emirate have laid claim to Russia’s most devastating terror attacks in recent years, including the bombing of a metro station in early 2010 and of Moscow’s busiest airport in early 2011. But Osmayev’s uncle, a well-connected former senator, told a Russian journalist on Monday that the family is well-known in Chechnya, and that Adam has never had any contact with the rebels. What’s more, the Osmayev family is reportedly close to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a pro-Kremlin strongman and Umarov’s sworn enemy.

Lastly – though there are far more holes in the story, I’m sparing you for the sake of brevity – is Osmayev’s Western connections. According to the report, he studied at the University of Birmingham and lived in London for some time, where he alleged hooked up with apparent émigré militants. London is a fitting choice, since it’s home to some of Putin’s own worst enemies, among them exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky – who has led a fierce anti-Putin campaign since he fled Russia in 2000 – and Akhmed Zakayev, the leader-in-absentia of the Chechen separatist government that traces its roots back before the first Chechen war in 1994. Both have political asylum in the U.K., and both stand accused by the Kremlin of aiding Chechen terrorists, even though Zakayev has long condemned Umarov and the Caucasus Emirate. As a side note, Putin has been stepping up his one-man war on the West as the protest movement at home has grown, accusing the U.S. of financing the anti-Kremlin opposition and warning Western powers in general against “meddling” in domestic politics.

So why, then, all this trouble? Putin is in desperate need of securing a first-round win in the upcoming presidential elections on March 4. Facing an increasingly powerful protest movement at home, he needs to mobilize every resource he can to consolidate what’s left of his loyal electorate and pull off a propaganda coup with a convincing win, once again cementing him as the pre-ordained “national leader.”

And by the way – coincidental catastrophes are the Kremlin’s apparent specialty. An alleged plot against Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev was similarly foiled on election day in March 2008, before Medvedev easily won the presidency as Putin’s hand-picked protégé. Earlier, in 1999, a series of deadly apartment bombings – again, clumsily connected to Chechen terrorists – helped galvanize the image of Putin (then prime minister) as a macho crisis leader, propelling him to the presidency only months later. Critics continue to point to an abundance of evidence that suggests the bombings were an inside job and an excuse to launch the second Chechen war in a quest for ratings.

Taken together, what we have, dear readers, is an increasingly nervous and outdated KGB henchman struggling very publicly to retain his ever waning-grip on power. And with Sunday’s presidential elections, which Putin is nevertheless likely to win, it’s only just beginning.

Dan Peleschuk is a Moscow-based journalist and staff writer at Russia Profile, a current affairs website covering politics, business and culture in Russia and former Soviet Union. He holds a B.A. from more


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