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A Mathias Rust Moment For The Siloviki?

German amateur aviator Matthias Rust stands trial for illegally landing near Red Square in Moscow in 1987.

German amateur aviator Matthias Rust stands trial for illegally landing near Red Square in Moscow in 1987.

In May 1987, Mathias Rust, an amateur German pilot, flew a rented Cessna aircraft from Finland to Moscow, evading Soviet air defenses and improbably landing on Red Square near the Kremlin.

Rust's quixotic flight, which he called an attempt to build an "imaginary bridge" between East and West, severely discredited the Soviet military establishment. It also gave Mikhail Gorbachev an excuse to fire hundreds of defense ministry officials who were opposed to his reforms, including the defense minister, Sergei Sokolov, and the air defense chief, Aleksandr Koldunov.

Reflecting on the potential political fallout from today's metro bombings in Moscow, I found myself thinking about Rust's flight and its aftermath.

From the very second he came to power over a decade ago, and especially since the 2004 Beslan hostage siege, Vladimir Putin has justified restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms in Russia as necessary to keep the country safe from terrorism.

In the wake of today's tragic bombings, will Russians begin to question that logic?

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service today, opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov called the metro attacks "a failure of the security services" and called for a full accounting.

Opposition youth leader Ilya Yashin went even further:

After today's terrorist act, I am certain that President Medvedev should fire Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This is a person who has assumed extreme powers and therefore is responsible for everything that happens in our country....
Not long ago Putin promised to end terrorist acts in Russian cities and a military victory over terrorism. For this we gave up our political rights and civil liberties. We gave up the right to elect governors. All of this undoubtedly strengthened Vladimir Putin's personal power, but did nothing to provide for our security. Today's attacks can be seen as the collapse of Putin's anti-terrorist policies...
Medvedev probably lacks the will and the ability to fire Putin. But three people who bear responsibility for not preventing these attacks need to be fired -- FSB Director [Aleksandr] Bortnikov, Interior Minister [Rashid] Nurgaliyev, and Moscow Police Chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev.

Are the siloviki about to have a Mathias Rust moment? My guess would be probably not -- or at least not yet. In 1988, the Soviet security establishment was on the defensive as Gorbachev's reforms were near their high-water mark. In contrast, the siloviki surrounding Putin remain the strongest political constituency in Russia.

Moreover, it would have to be Medvedev who would seize such a moment, as Gorbachev did more than two decades ago when he took on the defense ministry. And thus far, Medvedev has shown little stomach for challenging the siloviki, or even a desire to do so

Something to watch in the coming days and weeks is the degree to which Putin will try to use today's tragedy to further consolidate power. It will also merit watching how much pushback there will be -- not just from opposition figures like Ryzhkov and Yashin -- but from establishment politicians and society in general.

(Note To Readers: I will be writing a full-length feature on the political fallout of today's bombings, that expands on this post, in the coming days)

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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