The investigation of the crash of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31 took an unexpected turn on Friday, when unnamed senior US officials told CBS News that Russian authorities had requested the help of the FBI. Relations between the US and Russia are at their lowest point since Putin came to power in 2000, and there is already overwhelming evidence that Russian Metrojet Flight 9268, carrying 224 passengers and crew, was brought down by a bomb. Moreover, it could be particularly embarrassing if US intelligence was used to establish definitively that the plane was targeted by ISIS. If this is the case, it seems likely that the extremist group was responding to Russia’s recent intervention in Syria, an intervention that has already been resolutely condemned by the West.
Why, then, would the Kremlin want the FBI involved in a case that could seriously compromise public support for its Syria campaign? The Kremlin apparently is trying to make the best of a very bad situation. The Sinai crash comes just weeks after Russia began its controversial air strikes on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus—a decision that Russian President Vladimir Putin has described as an essential effort to contain the threat of terrorism. In his speech to the UN in late September, Putin said
there are fighters [in Syria] from many different countries, including European ones, gaining combat experience with Islamic State. Unfortunately, Russia is no exception. Now that those thugs have tasted blood, we can’t allow them to return home and continue with their criminal activities. Nobody wants that, right?
According to polling data gathered before the crash, Russians have broadly supported the Syria intervention, although many are also concerned that Russia will become involved in a protracted military conflict. These fears could be greatly heightened if the Russian public comes to believe that the air campaign in Syria has actually increased the threat of terrorism and turned Russians into new targets of extremist groups in the Middle East. As I wrote recently, Russia has a population of 15 million Muslims, most of whom are Sunnis, and Russia has been attacking Sunni strongholds in Syria.
The Russian government probably does not need the FBI’s help in its investigation of the plane crash. But Putin has to convince his people, as in the past, that he cannot be held responsible for acts of terrorism against Russia: it is a global problem beyond his control—rather than a direct consequence of his policies. In reaching out to the FBI, the Russian government may be resorting to its old argument, dating back to the days after September 11, that Russia and other global powers are all in it together, fighting the same enemy. And there is also the possibility that Russian cooperation with Western powers on the Sinai crash could dampen international criticism of Russia’s intervention in Syria.
Already last Friday, Putin’s government acknowledged the strong evidence that ISIS targeted Flight 9268 in retaliation for Russian involvement in Syria. (Although, Sputnik News, a Kremlin mouthpiece, has also suggested that British intelligence might have bombed the plane.) This follows the apparent conclusion of several Western governments, including the United Kingdom, which last week halted flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. A day later, following a joint meeting of the Russian Security Council and Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee, Putin suspended Russian flights to Egypt. But how to portray the disaster at home without undermining his popular support is a delicate task for Putin.
Writing on the New Yorker website, veteran Kremlin watcher Masha Lipman observed that Putin will, as on previous occasions, use the air crash for “patriotic mobilization”:
This patriotic message will almost certainly ensure that the plane crash does not affect Putin’s overwhelming popularity or prompt people to question his military campaign in Syria.
Lipman is right in that, thanks to the sophisticated propaganda machine of government-controlled television (still the main source of news for most Russians), feelings of patriotism and national pride—pitted against what most Russians perceive as a terrible threat from the West—have led Russians to accept the economic hardships that have come with the Kremlin’s military forays in Ukraine and now Syria.
But Russians do not take well to large losses of life among their innocent countrymen, especially when their government has often justified authoritarian measures as necessary to keep the population safe. There is also a history of Russian counter-terrorism efforts at home actually contributing to loss of life, such as with the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, which resulted in the deaths of around 130 hostages and the 2004 school siege at Beslan, where hundreds were killed, including many children. As journalist Mikhail Kostrovsky observed in the newspaper Moskovskii komsomolets:
When the price of “defending the country’s national interests” is abstract, albeit high, then society is ready to pay for it without hesitation. But when this price suddenly becomes a specific disaster and takes the form of sudden mass deaths of happy people full of vital energy, then the situation changes.
Recall the August 2000 Kursk tragedy, which led to an unprecedented wave of nationwide outrage against Putin. The nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine sank during naval exercises in the Barents Sea and all 118 seamen aboard died. Putin remained on vacation in the Black Sea, returning to Moscow only five days after the submarine sank. Even worse, the Russian government refused offers of help for the crew from the US, Britain, and Norway and initially tried to blame the disaster on a collision with a foreign vessel, rather than admitting the actual cause—an explosion of the fuel from a torpedo that the ship test-fired. Last summer, I visited Murmansk, the home of the Russian Northern naval fleet, where many of the submarine crew who perished came from. I was struck by the anger that Russian citizens there still have toward Putin, fifteen years after the Kursk affair, which still lingers on in Russia’s collective memory.
The challenge for the Kremlin posed by the Sinai crash goes well beyond the grief caused by the disaster itself: there are more than 70,000 Russian tourists in Egypt right now, many of them at resorts like Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada. With all regular Russian flights cancelled, Russia has begun airlifting its citizens back home. But many other Russians are affected too.
Egypt is one of the few places Russians can go on vacation at prices they can afford. (Western Europe is now beyond the budgets of most Russians because of the decline in the Russian ruble as a result of the drop in oil prices.) The Russian media is reporting that 200,000 Russians have already paid for holiday vacations to Egypt up through December. If tour operators have to reimburse them, they will go broke. And many Russians will be disappointed to have their holidays ruined.
There is a deep irony in Russia’s sudden appeal to the FBI for help in the investigation of the Sinai air crash, in view of its own dubious record in previous international investigations. As we now know, in the years leading up to the 2013 Boston Marathon case, Russia’s interactions with the FBI concerning one of the bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, raised many questions. The Russian FSB, after initially doing a “fishing expedition” to find out how much US intelligence knew about Tsarnaev, never informed the US about his later six-month sojourn in the Russian North Caucasus, home of many radical Islamists.
And the Russian government has done everything in its power to refute the evidence of the Dutch-led investigation of the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine in July 2014. They tried initially, with faked satellite photographs displayed publicly by the Russian Ministry of Defense, to claim that the plane had been shot down by a Ukrainian government fighter jet. When the Dutch investigation showed beyond doubt that a Russian BUK missile had hit the plane, the Kremlin got the manufacturers, Almaz-Antey, to claim that the date the missile in question was produced meant it was in the Ukrainian government arsenal. (The chairman of the board of Almaz-Antey is Viktor Ivanov, one of Putin’s closest allies from the St. Petersburg KGB.)
The Russian explanation for the Malaysian disaster has been completely discredited by Western researchers, including the independent research team, Bellingcat, which produced a meticulous account, through satellite photography, of the transit of the BUK missile from Russia into rebel-held Eastern Ukraine, where it was fired on July 17 and brought down the Malaysian airline. The research team also documented the trajectory of the missile, showing it had to have been fired from areas controlled by the rebels.
Constituents of democracies tend to accept that their governments are not perfect and that huge mistakes, which lead to significant loss of lives, happen: they may hold their leaders accountable, and eventually vote them out of office, but they do not question the legitimacy of their government. Russia has become a dictatorship, whose citizens have been told that their leader is faultless and whose strong-arm policies are keeping the country safe. When there is a disaster such as the apparent bombing of Flight 9268, government accountability becomes a huge problem. (The same could be said of President Sisi’s Egypt, a state that is extremely authoritarian. Its government is loath to admit that its airports are not secure, not only because it will lose valuable tourist dollars, but because it creates a crisis for a regime whose popularity is based on national security.) This is why Putin waited almost two days before making a public statement on the recent crash, causing much speculation in the Russian press.
Putin has justified Russia’s military involvement in Syria by saying that it is better to fight terrorists abroad rather than in Russia. And there is every reason to believe he will use the Sinai crash to argue for an even more robust Russian involvement in the Middle East. But the crash of Flight 9268—and the decision by the Russian government that Egypt is no longer a safe country for Russian tourists—may lead Russians to question that logic.