Streetwise Professor

September 5, 2010


Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:49 pm

1-3 September marked the 7th anniversary of the Beslan School Massacre.  It was, sadly, an all too familiar admixture of the basic ingredients of Putin’s Russia: incompetence, callousness, lack of accountability, and, especially, mendacity.

All of these marked the preliminaries to the attack, the attack and counterattack, and the post-attack actions of the government.

How could a large (but still not definitively determined) number of terrorists train for an extended period without detection?  How could they travel, laden with automatic weapons and explosives, and reach a school without detection?  (Relatedly: there are reports that they had planted weapons in the school prior to their assault.  How could that happen?)  Why didn’t the authorities react to an advanced warning of the impending assault?

One possibility that has been raised is that corruption played a role in all of this.  In Russia, such allegations are too credible to be dismissed out of hand, though they are not proven.

As to the government’s response to the attack itself.  The authorities (the FSB, and especially its Vympel and Alpha units) mounted a conventional military assault that would have been appropriate if assaulting a defended compound without over a thousand hostages at risk.  But there were more than a thousand hostages at risk.  The hostages died wholesale, most killed by weapons wielded by the FSB.  Many died in a fire in the school gymnasium, which most likely resulted from the use of a thermobaric weapon (sometimes rather misleadingly referred to as a “flamethrower”).  In the assault that followed, T-72 tanks fired into the burning building. Apparently as many as 9 of the thermobaric Shmel rockets were fired into the building.  A BTR APC fired a 14.5 mm (.50 cal) weapon into the school.

The assault was ill-planned and unprofessional.  Large numbers of armed locals participated in the attack.  The lack of planning was not surprising, given that there was no unity of command: there were apparently two command centers, the visible one, headed by the local FSB authorities, but the real commanders–the “heavies”– from FSB headquarters in Moscow secretly in charge and planning and executing the assault; this division, it became clear in the end, was tailor made to make patsies of the locals.  There was virtually no provision for emergency assistance to fight the fires or deal with casualties.

As bad as the execution of the attack was, the aftermath was arguably worse.  The school was leveled by bulldozers the day after the end of the siege.  The debris–including human remains–was deposited in a garbage dump.  Many bodies were buried unceremoniously in a nearby field.  The exact number of dead was never accurately determined.  Nor were the number of terrorists.  Nor was it established that all of the terrorists were killed or captured: it is possible that many escaped in the frenzy of the assault.

The mendacity began almost as soon as the assault.  In an attempt to downplay the situation, Kremlin announced that there were only 354 people in the school, when in fact there were more than 3 times as many people there.  That was their story, and they stuck to it through the three days.  This blatant lie enraged the terrorists, and intensified an already dire situation.  While the siege was in progress, and in the aftermath of the attack, the Kremlin lied repeatedly.  These lies were echoed in the state controlled media–when it reported on the events at all.  The government insisted that the tank and APC fired only after all the live hostages had escaped–which (a) was vehemently denied by survivors, and (b) which those making the decision to fire could not possibly have known to be true or false at the time the firing took place.

Foreign and domestic journalists (e.g., Anna Politkovskaya) were prevented from traveling to Beslan.  When Politkovskaya succeeded in getting on a plane, she was poisoned.  (It has been hypothesized that the reporter’s murder was related to her discovery of damning evidence about the government’s role in Beslan.)  Journalists who  made it to Beslan were detained, harassed, or arrested; the authorities confiscated equipment from some reporters.

The official investigations on the episode were farcical.  Despite the fact that local authorities were frightened to death to do anything, out of fear of angering Putin and the Kremlin, the investigations placed all the blame on the local officials.  The Kremlin received no criticism at all.  Putinism in a nutshell: claiming authority over everything, but accountable for nothing.

But the most mendacious act was Putin’s–no surprise here.  Responding to foreign criticism of the government’s handling of the disaster, Putin referred to the Cold War and said that the West was making the criticism to “pull strings so Russia won’t raise its head.”  Russia and Putin, always the victim of some dark foreign conspiracy.

To make clear: the ultimate responsibility for the outrage rests on the heads of the terrorists.  But the government bears a heavy burden for handling a terrible situation in the worst possible way.  (Oh, on reflection, perhaps there were worse ways.  Like obliterating the building in an artillery barrage or airstrike.)

Proving that nothing succeeds in Russia like failure, opportunist that he is, Putin used Beslan to deepen the power vertical and expand his control over local governments.  Yet another casualty of Beslan was the election of regional governors.  Post-Beslan, they would be appointed by the president, and rubber stamped by local legislatures.  However you look at it, the Kremlin failed at Beslan, but came out strengthened by the carnage.   Given this, on the cui bono principle, there should be no surprise at the widespread suspicion that the Kremlin was complicit in Beslan.  I personally discount such theories, but they don’t make it easy.  Not easy at all.

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  1. How could a large (but still not definitively determined) number of terrorists train for an extended period without detection?

    Indeed. I myself was very surprised that the system of registering ones whereabouts with the authorities did not aid the detection of the terrorists, nor the large number of checkpoints manned by the country’s highly professional road police. At least we can be sure that the system of requiring all foreign visitors to obtain a letter of invitation before being granted a visa guaranteed that the terrorists were all Russian.

    Comment by Tim Newman — September 5, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

  2. Actually, I think at some point AlQ was accused of taking part in the attack. I’m not sure if this was ever independently verified, though.

    Comment by NinaIvanovna — September 8, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

  3. Hi,

    The school was not leveled by bulldozers for the obvious reason it’s still standing, they rather used shovels and such to clean up the “mess” of the gym room after removing the corpses but missing some body parts.

    But such approach is simply typical for Russia. The apartment bombing sites in 1999 were actually leveled within few days since the blasts, and in the recent metro bombings of the Moscow metro the stations were opened for the public already in just hours after the blasts.

    Even their handling of the Smolensk crash that killed the Polish government was just like this, as people found aircraft parts, personal items and reportedly even body parts there few weeks later. (Not to mention the soldiers stealing a credit card from a corpse, or the locals collecting and sometimes selling the “souvenirs”.) There are many more scandals (and mysteries) regarding this one, too, but this time it’s an international affair.

    It’s unthinkable in the western countries, where a serious in-site investigation would be conducted for a VERY long time. (See the Lockerbie and the WTC investigations for example.)

    Comment by Robert — September 9, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  4. Some chilling footage by the local people as the events unfolded:

    Comment by Robert — September 9, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

  5. @Putinism in a nutshell: claiming authority over everything, but accountable for nothing. (…) (Oh, on reflection, perhaps there were worse ways. Like obliterating the building in an artillery barrage or airstrike.)

    THIS is exactly how they handled the hostage situation in Pervomayskoye in Dagestan in 1996 (artillery and airstrikes). It was also an FSB-led operation, but before any Putinism. Actually Yeltsin even appeared there personally to tell about his “38 snipers” which was then often ridiculed after this to the point his FSB chief (Bartnikov) would then deny Yeltsin ever said this (I just googled Yeltsin + “38 snipers” and yeah, lots of people still remember this). On the other hand, Putin was nowhere to be find (publicily) during the Beslan crisis. A different approach, yes. Worse? I don’t know. For me both of these were horribly bad.

    It’s also interesting to note the artillery barrage way of solving things in Pervomayskoye actually resulted in far less casualties, and a vastly different ending to the crisis too.

    Comment by Robert — September 9, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

  6. Also 14.5 mm is not “.50 cal” (.50 cal is 12.7 mm).

    Comment by Robert — September 22, 2010 @ 7:00 am

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