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Did Vladimir Putin come to power by faking terrorist attack?

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during a media conference after a G-8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 18. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, Pool)

David Satter, who has been reporting and writing on Russia since the bad old days of the Soviet Union, has been blocked from entering the country, as he recounts in his article on today's Wall Street Journal opinion page. He is the first journalist to be expelled from the country since the Cold War. His expulsion tells you something about the sinister character of the regime of Vladimir Putin, something that he has been writing about for years.

I first met Satter on trips to observe the Russian elections of 1996 and 2000 sponsored by the Jamestown Foundation. He took a dark view of developments in Russia even amid the mood of optimism in the mid-1990s. What I find most shocking, however, is his writings on the circumstances in which Putin came, suddenly, to power in late 1999. Here is his characterization in today's article:

"But most important of all is the question of who was responsible for the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia that served as the pretext for Moscow's second war against the former Soviet republic of Chechnya. The bombings terrorized all of Russia, created a wave of patriotic fervor and swept the previously unknown Mr. Putin into the presidency. The Russian authorities blamed the bombings on Chechens, but when an unexploded bomb was discovered in the basement of one building, the terrorists were caught and proved to be agents of the Federal Security Service or FSB, a successor to the old KGB."

If Satter's suspicions are correct, and Putin and/or his colleagues in the FSB engineered the bombings that led to his accession to power, the implications are chilling. Some 300 innocent people were killed when the old Soviet-style high-rise apartments in provincial Russia were bombed. Those responsible for the bombings clearly had no regard for innocent human life and were willing to kill in order to further their (Terrorist? Political?) aims. The possibility that Putin was complicit in cold-blooded murder, not just of political opponents or critics but of randomly chosen individuals, is chilling.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama initially approached Putin as someone they could do business with — and to be sure, American presidents have had to deal with terrible tyrants over the years. In his memoir Bush implicitly admits that his initial favorable response to Putin was mistaken. It's not clear whether Obama, who in March 2012 asked Putin's stand-in Dmitry Medvedev to tell Putin "after my election I have more flexibility," has reached a similar conclusion. His willingness to let Putin guide American policy in Syria suggests the contrary.