Russian and Ukrainian security services announced Monday that they have thwarted an attempt by Chechen militants to assassinate Vladimir Putin after next Sunday's vote, in which he is expected to be elected as Russia's president.
The plot's exposure, coming on the eve of elections in which Mr. Putin is under great pressure to pull off a convincing first-round victory, has prompted predictable skepticism from the opposition. Even some security experts say the timing seems a bit fishy, and the conspiracy, as explained on state TV, somewhat too vague to be thrust into the day's news headlines.
A video broadcast on the state-run Channel One Monday showed Chechen terrorist suspect Adam Osmayev, with a badly battered face, confessing that he and two accomplices had been sent to Odessa, in Ukraine, to prepare for the attack.
"The final task was to go to Moscow and carry out an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Putin," Mr. Osmayev is shown saying. "The deadline was set up for the period after the presidential elections."
The report said that the men were detained in Odessa last January after a blast in a rented apartment, apparently caused by a homemade bomb, killed one of the gang. The other two, under interrogation by Ukrainian security forces, admitted they had been sent by Chechen Islamist warlord Doku Umarov to research and equip for the assassination attempt on Putin.
The plan reportedly involved striking Putin's motorcade with powerful "anti-tank mines" planted along the side of Moscow's central Kutuzovsky Prospekt, which is part of Putin's regular route to work as he travels from his home, near the Moscow-region town of Usovo, to government headquarters each day. According to the report, the suspects had information about Putin's daily habits on a laptop computer, including videos of his motorcade shot from different angles.
Experts say that such an attack would be extremely difficult. The entire route between Putin's suburban home and his office is usually completely closed down and cleared of traffic. The streets are patrolled by police cruisers and security agents are posted every few-hundred yards, before Putin even begins moving. When he does move, it is always in a convoy of several armored cars that typically tears along the empty roads at speeds of about 150 miles per hour.
"What we're hearing doesn't really sound like something well-planned and conceived, but more like somebody's ambition," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of the online journal Agentura.ru, which reports on security issues, and co-author of The New Nobility, a new book about Russia's secret services.
"It's not clear why this needed to be made public today," he adds.
The state-owned English-language TV network RT quoted Viktor Ozerov, the head of the Kremlin-appointed, upper parliamentary house's defense and security committee, as saying that Putin is a perennial target of terrorists. "All Vladimir Putin’s actions … have been aimed at fighting with bandit formations, organized crime, and terrorism," he said. "Putin has stepped on the throat and tail of many a terrorist and this is why the preparations for such terrorist attack are hardly a surprise."
But political experts say the timing of the announcement looks more like an election ploy than serious news.
"It sounds like complete nonsense and bluff," says Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the independent Institute of National Strategy in Moscow. "The real threat is that Putin looks like he might get less than 40 percent of the votes, when he needs 20 percent more for a convincing victory. So, obviously they're throwing in everything to ensure he'll win in the first round."
Yury Kobaladze, a former KGB agent who's now a businessman, says it even makes poor politics.
"I haven't had anything to do with the special services for some time, but as a citizen, I think the timing chosen for this news is all wrong," he says. "It won't influence Putin's supporters, but it will give the opposition a chance to criticize by saying it's all nonsense."
Mr. Soldatov points out that officials have announced several previous attempts on Putin's life, and all such declarations have been followed by silence.
"I think we can count about 12 previous occasions in which security officials have said they thwarted a plot to kill Putin, some of them outside of Russia in former Soviet countries," he says. "Yet we have never seen a single trial of suspects take place. Not one. We have no idea what happened to the alleged perpetrators of these plots. That's really odd."