MOSCOW -- Maybe it’s telephone terrorism. Maybe it’s a secret test of the country’s civil defense. Or maybe it’s a new form of cyberwarfare.
For five days, Russia has been hit by hundreds of fake bomb threats phoned in to universities, schools, hospitals, airports, and railway stations nationwide. They’ve forced police to evacuate tens of thousands, sowing panic and disrupting business across the country.
The most recent calls came on September 14 to the upscale GUM shopping center on Red Square, opposite the Kremlin. The posh mall, home to stores like Gucci, Prada, and Hugo Boss, was evacuated, as were 20 schools and two cinemas in the capital alone. Over 100,000 were evacuated from various buildings around Moscow the day before.
Yet, no one knows where the calls are coming from.
Government and law enforcement have offered no authoritative explanations. The Kremlin -- having initially declined to comment -- on September 14 labeled it “telephone terrorism,” saying only that the perpetrators were being sought.
Meanwhile, fed by an array of anonymous sources cited by pro-Kremlin media, theories and speculation have mushroomed, blaming Ukraine, Islamic State, and even radical Russian Orthodox activists as possible perpetrators.
In comments to RFE/RL’s Russian Service, experts in the military and security services speculated that the sheer scale could indicate it is the work of the Russian security services themselves -- either as part of an elaborate drill or some false-flag operation to legitimize a crackdown on Internet freedoms.
The calls are being made on IP telephones using encryption to scramble the caller’s location, according to sources cited by the Russian news agency Interfax. The bomb tip-offs are made by a prerecorded voice, the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid reported.
Ukraine And Islamic State
On September 12, Komsomolskaya Pravda, known for its pro-Kremlin views, cited Russian security service sources who blamed the calls -- without providing evidence -- on Ukrainian “cybertroops.”
This explanation has been touted by other Russian media, including Interfax, which cited an “informed source” on September 14 claiming that 90 percent of the calls had been made from Ukraine via “Internet channels.”
State media have also pointed to Islamic State extremists, casting the phone calls as the latest in a line of radical Islamist attacks in Russia stretching back to the 1990s.
On September 14, the RIA Novosti news agency cited a law enforcement source as saying the calls are being placed by individuals abroad linked to Islamic State. The source claimed that investigators could not divulge more information without compromising their investigation.
One theory mooted by the independent Meduza news outlet held that the hoaxes might be the work of Orthodox radicals protesting a controversial new film depicting a romance between Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, and a ballerina.
The film, titled Matilda, was due to hit cinemas this week, though the country's largest cinema chain canceled showings due to threats from Orthodox radicals who called for the film to be banned. Nicholas II, who was murdered along with his family by Bolsheviks, was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, and many devout Orthodox believers consider him a saint.
Aleksandr Kalinin, the head of Christian State-Holy Rus, a radical Orthodox group campaigning against the film, told Meduza that the wave of hoaxes could be linked to the film.
Kalinin said he received a letter from radicals informing him that “there are guys who are prepared to show all these cinema distributors that there are modes of fighting much more effective than arson and other things.”
The letter appeared to include a threat to use potent but nonlethal methods like phone lines in order to “destabilize Russia’s entire infrastructure,” Meduza reported.
Drills Or False Flag?
Shortly after the bomb alerts began, the local Perm issue of the pro-Kremlin weekly Argumenty I Fakty cited Oleg Ostrovsky, a Defense Ministry official in the Urals region, who suggested the calls were part of antiterrorism drills taking place nationwide.
"For the first time in Russia since the U.S.S.R., there are large-scale antiterrorism drills in which all the agencies responsible for state security are taking part. Apart from Omsk, Novosibirsk, Perm, and Chelyabinsk, soon there will be drills also in other big cities,” he told the newspaper in an article published on September 12.
The newspaper quoted him directly by name before editing the report to remove his name. The report was then deleted from the site altogether.
Aleksandr Golts, a military analyst and chief editor of the Yezhednyevny Zhurnal weekly, told RFE/RL's Russian Service said he found the lack of official statement from the security services suspicious since, he said, they usually try to project strength.
“Our security services are keeping silent, which to an extent forces us to suspect that these were drills after all. As always when drills take place in Russia, they happen fairly stupidly,” he said.
Others like Gennady Gudkov, a former State Duma deputy and a retired Federal Security Services officer, also speculated that the security services could be behind the calls, although for different reasons.
He said authorities might be trying to scare the population over Internet anonymizers, in order to legitimize a state crackdown on online encryption devices.
President Vladimir Putin this summer signed legislation banning virtual private networks and Internet anonymizers in measures that take effect on November 1.
“These are not drills,” Gudkov said. “They are preparing public opinion for the banning of the Internet.”