Russia Update: Kremlin Finally Admits Metrojet Flight Was Downed By Bomb

November 17, 2015

The Kremlin has finally admitted what other governments and experts have been saying for weeks – that the Metrojet flight downed over the Sinai on October 31 was destroyed by a bomb. FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov told President Putin during a for-camera briefing that traces of explosives had been found among the wreckage.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

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Human Rights Ombudsperson Urges Immediate Surgery for Oleg Navalny, Brother of Opposition Leader Alexei

The brother of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, serving a sentence in Orlov Region labor colony on a case widely seen as fabricated as punishment for his brother’s activism, should be sent to an area hospital for immediate surgery, Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsperson Ella Pamfilova said in a press statement today (translation by The Interpreter):

According to the results of an inspection of Labor Colony No. 5, where Oleg Navalny is serving a sentence, by the Orlov Department of the Federal Corrections Service, it has been determined that at the recommendation of a specialist physician, he requires an immediate surgical operation as an in-patient at the health care system of Orlov Region.

Oleg’s lawyer explained that her client was diagnosed with a cyst of the maxillary sinus which should be removed immediately to prevent complications. Several options were being discussed: transferring Oleg to another labor camp where it would be possible to perform the operation; move him to an ordinary hospital in Orlov region near the labor camp or bring doctors to the labor colony itself and operator in the camp dispensary.

Pamfilova also sent an appeal to the prosecutor’s office noting the need to conduct a thorough examination of the legality of the placement of Oleg Navalany in solitary confinement in the punishment cell and the legality of a number of other disciplinary penalties including a worsening of the conditions of confinement when he comes out of solitary.

In recent weeks, as he has been vocal in complaining about poor conditions, Oleg Navalny has been subjected to various penalties and now the punishment cell on claims that he used an illegal device, although authorities have not explained to him the details.

Translation: Navalny’s brother received 17 punishments from the heads of the colony.

Kira Yarmysh, press secretary of Alexei Navalny, said Oleg began to suffer complications from his condition after being kept in the punishment cell for long stretches. She said that while permission was granted to send him to the Orlov hospital, the Federal Corrections Service refused and wanted to convoy him to St. Petersburg.

On December 30, Oleg Navalny was sentenced to 3.5 years of labor colony on charges of fraud related to a mail-order business serving Yves Rocher East. Alexey Navalny was handed a suspended sentence of 3.5 years. Yves Rocher did not have a complaint against the brothers.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Cossacks to Guard District Courts in Moscow; Some Are Frequent Locations of Political Trials
The Russian government has decided to deploy Cossacks, the long-time mounted guard of the Kremlin particularly at its far-flung borders, at the district courts in Moscow, and Novaya Gazeta reports.
Yevgeny Goloshumov, head of the Main Directorate for Organizational and Legal Maintenance of the Operation of Courts at the Supreme Court’s Judicial Department, told the measure was dictated by a shortage of outside security agencies to fill positions in the bailiff service.
Kasachya Strazha (Cossack Watch), a private organization, has been enlisted to perform the function that previously was fulfilled by government security and then moved earlier this year to a private security agency called Okhrana (Guard) which then proved too expensive. 
Ivan Mironov, the ataman, or leader, of the Central Cossack Troops, confirmed the news. He said the Cossacks would stand at the entrance of the courts in Cossack uniforms bearing arms, and would look at everyone’s IDs and guard the buildings round the clock.

Cossack societies, an institution since the time of the tsars, have been used by the modern Russian government for a variety of functions, including as clandestine fighters in the Ukrainian war. The battles in the Donbass have given them a new visibility, and some have been famous, interviewed by Western journalists, such as Nikolai Kozitsyn, who kept pictures of Putin and Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov on his office wall along with his Cossack banner featuring the Mother of God.

Putin, God, and Surkov – 'Holy' Trinity of Nikolai Kozitsyn, Terrorists' Leader. VIDEO

As reported by Censor.NET, the journalists of Vice news found their way to the terrorist in Perevalsk by accident. "At some point on the road we were cut off by a small bus painted with infernal smile faces "so that 'ukrops' (terrorists' derogative for Ukrainians – ed.) fear."

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Nov 17, 2015 22:55 (GMT)

The use of Cossacks instead of regular Interior Ministry police represents another step up, and one that liberal Russians will fear as some Cossack groups have a notorious record of xenophobia and antisemitism and were known in the Tsar’s time for pogroms against the Jews, and in more recent times for persecution of the Meskhetian Turks, who were forced to flee en masse to the US and other countries and lately harassment of Maidan supporters. The Cossack community is not uniform, with some groups abroad critical of the Kremlin and some at home privately critical of violent attacks.

As our syndicated columnist Paul Goble points out, the Cossacks continuing traditions of dissent against the Kremlin who refuse to be registered are the targets of a crackdown now:
As Mironov indicated, the Cossacks are increasingly incorporated into the work of the Russian state:
In the Cossack community there are the so-called registered Cossacks — those who accept an oath for government service when joining the Cossack community. Government bodies, in this case agencies organizing the work of courts, have created the opportunity to carrying out this service at the courts.
This particular Cossack group called “Cossack Watch” was created by order of the Russian government and is now guarding Basmanny, Zamoskvoretsky, Meschansky, Zelenogradsky, Presenensky, Savelovsky, Tagansky, Tversky, Khovnichesky and Troitsky district courts.
A Google search of the names of these particular courts with the term “”  will find what they have in common: a number of them are the courts that either are in the central districts of Moscow where opposition and human rights activists tend to have demonstrations, or have handled high-profile cases like those of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. They tend to be the courthouses that attract friends and supporters sometimes in large numbers as the hearings and trials proceed inside.

Hundreds if not thousands of Russians have gone through these courts in the last year in Moscow for solo or group pickets against the war in Ukraine or the economic crises or causes like the mass lay-offs of doctors or the introduction of paid parking. The presence of the Cossacks is likely first and foremost to deter them, as Cossacks have already been used unofficially to disperse and even beat protesters against the war in Ukraine.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

State Duma Calls for International Coalition to Fight Terrorism by Analogy with Anti-Hitler Coalition
The State Duma, the lower house of parliament of Russia, has called for the creation of an international coalition against terrorism, but denounced “the short-sighted policy of the US” as the reason for the rise of ISIS, reported.
The Duma passed a statement about the need to immediately create the coalition and expressed condolences to the relatives of the terrorist attack in Paris in which 132 lost their lives.
The statement was entirely disconnected to the reality of Russia’s launching of a bombing campaign in Syria September 30, although the United Russia reference to the draft mentioned the admission finally today that terrorism was involved in the crash of Russia’s Metrojet airliner October 31.
The statement said (translation by The Interpreter):

Recent events confirm the correctness of the repeated warnings by the Russian Federation that the constant destabilization of the situation in the Near and Middle East by those who pretend to global domination, above all the United States of America, leads to the expansive of the zone of bloody chaos and numerous human tragedies.

The deputies called on countries to lay aside their “tactical differences” to create a “broad coalition to fight terrorism on the example of the anti-Hitler coalition” whose “common enemy is the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, the Al Nursa Front and groups related them.

Tass reported the same statement, emphasizing another paragraph of the statement, which has not yet been posted on the State Duma website:

It is obvious that the irresponsible and flawed policy of the West conducted under the slogan “export of democracy” has already led to the appearance and strengthening of the so-called Islamic State, and attempts to use radical groups as a battering ram to deter disliked regimes and is fraught with further negative scenarios. In the event that urgent and effective measures are not taken, including of a military nature, the chaos in the Middle East and North Africa threats to flood a war of violence and terror to neighboring states and regions of the world.

The anti-fascist coalition that the Soviet Union initiated in World War II was undermined by Moscow’s own agreement with Hitler in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and involved creating fronts to attract European socialists and other liberal organizations around a Moscow-directed platform. It was used to cement Communist influence and even takeover of Eastern European and other countries.
The Duma called for cutting off financing of terrorism by ending the purchase of stolen oil or ancient artifacts, although there are already existing bodies to work on ending the funding of terrorism such as the Financial Action Task Force (which has often had to deal with the “problem” countries among Russia’s own allies in Central Asia). Further, the points of sale of the oil and artifacts are among Moscow’s own historical and current allies in their anti-terror coalition.
As Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky explained, Putin is not urging an anti-terrorism coalition out of the goodness of his heart:

“He wants to win the war and to be acknowledged as the leader who brought about victory.”

In the Cold War, the Kremlin dubbed anyone skeptical of the merits of their “anti-fascist coalition” in past decades as themselves supporters of fascism — a meme that has been revived with Moscow’s campaign against the “junta” in Kiev, inevitably described as “fascist,” with the Russian-backed separatists glorified as “anti-fascists.”

So Kremlin propaganda is sure to portray those skeptical of a coalition against terrorism with Russia as fueling terrorism as this Duma statement already does, although Russia’s annual extrajudicial killing of 300-400 terrorism suspects has not curbed terrorism within Russia or stemmed the flow of Russian citizens joining ISIS. Furthermore, as we have reported repeatedly in our Putin in Syria blog, Russia hasn’t been seriously bombing ISIS, but has bombed other groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad.

Nevertheless, world leaders will be forced to deal with Russia, a nuclear power brandishing its muscle, to try to make it “part of the solution” rather than “part of the problem” as it continues to engage in provocations against NATO. Yesterday, French President Francois Hollande announced he would soon meet Putin in Moscow before an international summit on climate change laster this month, still scheduled to be held in Paris despite the terrorist attack.

 — Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Russia Tests a Topol ICBM
Russia tested a Topol RS-12M ICBM today at the testing grounds of Kapustin Yar in the Astrakhan Region, the Strategic Rockets Forces press service told Interfax.
“The purpose of the launch was to test a prospective warhead for the ICBM,” a source in the Strategic Rockets Forces (SRF) told Interfax. “The training warhead of the missile hit a simulated target at the Sary-Shagan testing grounds in Kazakhstan with the required precision,” said the source.
The SRF press release further stated (translation by The Interpreter):

It should be noted that for testing the warhead elements of ballistic missiles, the Kapustin Yar proving grounds are unique. Only Kaputstin Yar has the testing runs and ground measuring complex that enables testing prospective warheads capable of defeating an anti-ballistics system. This includes prospective full-range configuration of possible conditions for its striking of targets in the interests of the Russian Strategic Rockets and Navy.

The test was consistent with past tests Russia has made of the same system (an identical test and statement on August 22, 2015) but occurs now in a context where Russia is engaging in a number of “firsts” — its first air war (in the past it has tended to rely on tanks and troops); its first launching of a cruise missile from a ship in the Caspian Sea at the outset of the bombing campaign in Syria; and today as we reported its first launch of a cruise missile from a submarine in the history of the Russian armed forces.

– Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Kremlin Finally Admits Metrojet Flight Was Downed By Bomb

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) confirmed today that a bomb brought down Metrojet flight 9268 over the Sinai desert on October 31.

Up until today, despite numerous statements from the British, Israeli and American governments that intelligence indicated a terrorist act, Russia has declined to commit to the theory.

Last night, at a meeting held before cameras in the Kremlin, Aleksandr Bortnikov, the head of the FSB, told President Vladimir Putin that “traces of foreign-made explosives” had been found amongst the wreckage of the plane.

From the Kremlin transcript

According to our experts, a self-made explosive device equivalent up to 1 kg of TNT was set off on board, which explains why the fragments of the aircraft were scattered over a large area.

We can say with confidence that this was a terrorist act.

Putin responded by standing for a moments silence before addressing the camera in what was clearly a prepared piece of political theatre:


“This is not the first time Russia experiences barbaric terrorist crime, usually without any obvious internal or external causes, the way it was with the explosion at the railway station in Volgograd at the end of 2013. We remember everything and everyone.

The murder of our people over Sinai is one of the bloodiest crimes in terms of the lives it claimed. We will not dry our tears – this will remain forever in our hearts and minds. However, this would not stop us from finding and punishing the perpetrators.

We have to do it without any period of limitation; we need to know all their names. We will search wherever they may be hiding. We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them.

In these efforts, we need to rely on people who share the moral values that lie at the basis of our policy, in this case our foreign and security policy, our counterterrorism policy.

Our aviation should not simply continue military operations in Syria, but enhance them so as to make it clear to the criminals that vengeance is inevitable.

I would like to ask the Defence Ministry and the General Staff to make their proposals. I will check the progress of this work.

I would like the Russian Foreign Ministry to turn to all our partners. We rely on all our friends in these efforts, including our search for and punishment of the perpetrators.”

Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, went further, telling reporters that the president had given the order to “destroy” those responsible for the attacks.

The Interpreter translates from an Interfax report:

“The president has instructed our special services to take measures to identify all of those who took part in the organisation of this heinous terrorist act. He ordered them to find these people across the whole world, regardless of geography, without any statute of limitation, and destroy all of these people.”

Peskov said that Russia was conducting all of its anti-terrorist activities in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allows member states to engage in individual or collective self-defence in response to an armed attack.

When asked if Russia would expand its military intervention in Syria to include ground operations, Peskov replied that Putin had repeatedly stated that Russia was not considering any operations other than air strikes. 

Of course Russian artillery and communications vehicles have been documented in Syria, but there is no evidence so far of any offensive infantry operations. Dr Igor Sutyagin of the Royal United Services Institute compiled a list of Russian forces currently believed to be deployed in Syria last week.

With the Kremlin finally admitting what has been believed by foreign security services for weeks, Egyptian security officials decided to tell Reuters today that two employees of Sharm el-Sheikh airport, from which the doomed Metrojet flight took off, have been detained in connection with the bombing.

“Seventeen people are being held, two of them are suspected of helping whoever planted the bomb on the plane at Sharm al-Sheikh airport,” one of the officials said. 

The Egyptian government, like Russia, has been hitherto reluctant to ascribe the downing to a terrorist act. Reuters reports that a news conference is expected later today to follow a meeting of Egyptian ministers with the country’s military dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The timing of the FSB announcement is of note, given yesterday’s conciliatory notes at the G20 conference.

— Pierre Vaux