I am sorry - I simply don't believe it. This morning, February 27, Russian media reported that Ukrainian and Russian security services had foiled an assassination plot to kill Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shortly after the presidential election due this weekend.
A group of criminals, already on the international wanted lists, were arrested in the Ukrainian seaside resort of Odessa in January after a bomb accidentally exploded in their apartment killing one and injuring two more. One of the men confessed after weeks of interrogation that the bomb was intended for Putin "soon after the March 4 elections," according to the reports.
One of the survivors, Ilya Pyanzin, claimed Chechen militant leader and Russia's most wanted man, Doku Umarov, hired him and the deceased Ruslan Madayev to kill Putin. Pyanzin and Madayev came from the United Arab Emirates via Turkey to Ukraine. In Odessa, they were met by a local fixer, Adam Osmayev, who was supposed to brief the militants about the plan and send them to Moscow, reports Ria Novosti.
There are many problems with this scenario. The timing of the announcement immediately raises suspicions, coming only days before the vote despite the fact the men were arrested weeks ago. But even in the West the authorities would probably sit on a story like this to make maximum political use of it. The obvious incompetence of the assassins, who managed to blow themselves up, raises another question mark.
However, the rest of the evidence is very thin and more importantly the entire shape of the plan jars with the way Chechen terrorists work.
According to reports, police found an assassination "plan" on a laptop in which they would have to "learn the structure of Putin's security team and how his bodyguards worked," the reports say. This is an expression of intent, not an actual plan with details of how Putin's security detail actually works. Moreover, if they had not even started to study Putin's security only a month before the assassination (and were still thousands of miles from Moscow at the time), this doesn't sound like a particularly serious attempt to find a chink in Putin's armour. Surely, planning an attempt on a PM's life takes months and months of meticulous planning.
The stated plan was to plant mines along Kutuzovsky prospekt and detonate them as Putin's convoy passes on his way to work. But there are a string of problems with this too. I used to live on Kutuzovsky and everyday as Putin drove past, the street would fill up with beefy FSB officers every 100 metres or so along the route to check the road. Secondly, Kutuzovsky is an eight-lane road and Putin's entourage drives extremely fast down the middle as all traffic is cleared out of the way. A bomb that could reach and catch Putin's car (which is armoured) and actually destroy it would have to be massive and very hard to hide - certainly they would have to be more powerful than to simply "tear apart a truck" that a security officer told Russia's First Channel.
Still, even this is all possible. But what makes this alleged attack most unlikely is that the style of the whole plan is totally out of keeping with all the other Chechen attacks, which can be divided into two types: hostage taking and bomb attacks.
Chechen commander Shamil Basayev set the tone for hostage taking with his raid on the Budyonnovsky hospital in southern Russian in June 1995, where 129 civilians died and another 415 were injured after the Russian army stormed the hospital. (Basayev escaped back into Chechen and was eventually killed in July 2006). This incident was followed by the Dubrovka theatre incident in October 2002 and the especially tragic Beslan school crisis in September 2004. However, all three of these incidents were broadly similar in nature: Chechen fighters - not mercenaries - attacked and mined a building full of Russian hostages.
The second type of attack has been bombings, the most recent of which was the attack on the Park Kultury metro station in March 2010 that killed 38 people and injured dozens more. The metro bomb was the first since a similar attack on the Paveletskaya metro in 2004 that killed 41.
However, all the bombing attacks have been carried out by Chechens and most of them have been suicide bombings. In Chechnya itself, attacks were constant and all well planned: in December 2002, Chechen suicide bombers rammed vehicles into the local government headquarters in Grozny, bringing down the roof and floors of the four-story building and killing 80; in June 2003, two women suicide bombers killed 15 people at an open-air rock festival at Moscow's Tushino airfield; in May 2004, Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov and six others are killed by a bomb that was buried in the football stand months earlier during reconstruction. And the last two metro bombs were suicide attacks.
Finally, there is the weird historical echo of this alleged plot. When Putin won the presidency first time round in 2000, he was swept into office in an atmosphere of fear following a series of four apartment bombings in 1999 that killed 293 Russians sleeping in their beds.
The apartment bombings were also blamed on Chechen terrorists, but have been dogged since by claims that the FSB were actually responsible. Chechen rebel leader Ibn Al-Khattab denied his forces carried out the attacks, saying he was fighting Russian soldiers not "women and children."
The truth about this plot will probably never be known, but the reports are like to make the inevitable return of Putin to the president's office a certainty. If this plot is a PR stunt, then it bodes ill for Russia that the Kremlin prefers to fight its elections using fear rather than policy and persuasion.