Thursday, August 26, 2004

Russian Explosions, Continued.
DC Rybicki sends this email concerning the two crashed airplanes in Russia earlier this week. To see his earlier post, click here.

As always in Russia, two questions out of this incident:

"What is to be done?" and "Who is to blame?"

Question 1: In retrospect, I was silly to have repeated the claim from that the Russian authorities were on the verge of declaring the accident a terrorist event yesterday. They obviously were about to do no such thing. No negative coverage of the president, people under his protection or his policies is ever permitted through mass media channels in Putin's Russia. And it doesn't take a George Kennan to figure out that if it turns out to be terrorism, it makes Putin look weak, it makes Putin's Chechnya policy look ineffective, it makes people wonder about the efficacy of further military operations in Chechnya, it makes people scared to fly, etc. There's a lot of Chechnya fatigue over here already and the last thing Putin needs is a "Russian 9/11." "No 9/11 analogies, please" is going to be the line to the media. You get a lot of Chechnya coverage on the TV of fountains and flowers and teenage Chechen girls in sundresses smiling and buying oranges. Flashback to old Soviet-period episodes of the newsprogram "Vremya" which featured cutting-edge stories on jolly Ukrainian peasants exceeding last month's grain-production quotas.

The acceptable media position to take is that Putin is WINNING the war on terror in Russia, and winners don't have setbacks like this. Great Powers don't have Chernobyls either, and there would never have been government admission of the meltdown had the Swedes not gone public with the massive increases in ambient atmospheric radiation that couldn't be explained away by "solar flares".

It never happened. Like Kursk, and the aftermath of the Nord-0st theatre seizure, the goverment will be so miserly with revealing any new information that, in the course of a few weeks, people will forget about this one too. Besides, Kursk and Nord-Ost were prolonged, dramatic, national tragedies which held the public's attention; people were clammoring for answers, results, save them before it's too late!

This situation has none of those characteristics and will be much easier to hush up or whitewash. Frankly, people here were more anxious about the pipe bomb that exploded at a south-Moscow bus stop (four injured) than about the planes (ninety? dead). In 6 months, some half-assed report will be written that attributes the crashes to "poor maintenance" and "freak weather conditions" and will not address the possibility that this was a coordinated event. The planes both exploded in mid-air and crashed at the same time because their fuel tanks were hit by lightning bolts or whatever.

It doesn't have to make sense, it just has to explain away the problem. It's like this work colleague of mine who is obviously a heavy drinker and always complains that "magnetic storms" or "atmospheric pressure" are really making him feel rotten; it couldn't possibly be that liter of rotgut he drank yesterday at the train station.

Question 2: Low-level ministry of transportation bureaucrats will have their knuckles rapped for incompetence or callousness, some mild punishments will likely be meted out to airport higher-ups and the air companies themselves. Domodedovo is the new showpiece airport and its reputation can't be tarnished by accusations of bad security. Security will be tightened, but no admissions regarding fault will be made. Since what we're seeing here was an "accident", I don't think that this event
will have much impact on Russian terrorism policy (I can already hear the dulcet tones of some chinovnik repeating ad nauseam "this is a matter for internal aviation oversight"), Chechnya policy or US-Russia bilat relations. And the guy from Sibir' Airlines who went public with the Tu-154 terrorist signal report before getting a greenlight from the government will be dealt appropriately.

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