MOSCOW—It could be an opening scene for a modern thriller. Powerful politicians in the United States and Russia are talking about the risk of World War III. Maybe there will be a confrontation in Syria. Maybe in the Baltics. Maybe in cyberspace. And then …
In the dim morning light an inspector at Moscow’s Perovo train station is checking cargo that’s arrived from the town of Oryol, some 276 kilometers (234 miles) to the south. One of the railroad cars arrived in the Russian capital empty on Monday, at least that is what the paperwork says. There is no lock on the door, just a piece of wire holding it shut. The inspector pulls the wire. He opens the heavy door, and there, loose on the floor of the carriage he sees 125 mm tank shells, and green boxes piled high with many more of them—tons more of them.
What were unguarded explosives doing in this city of more than 12 million people? The inspector called for police; police called the Federal Security Service, the FSB; it reached out to the Ministry of Defense—but nobody could figure out who was responsible for sending this mysterious arsenal rolling down the tracks to the Moscow. Was it some reckless army officer too drunk to remember a thing next day, or, had somebody stolen the weapons or, the worst scenario, was some terrorist group plotting a massive attack.
The preliminary investigation took two days. On Wednesday, reports said that the carriage with seven tons of explosive ammunition had traveled for up to 3,000 kilometers (about 1,900 miles) from the Russian Far East all the way across Russia to Moscow without any special convoy to protect it. The trip took two weeks, but during that whole period of time there was still no sign of any defense ministry official feeling concerned about the life-threatening cargo, or for that matter, noting it had gone missing.
Russia’s Life News agency reminded its readers that it took only 350 kilos (772 pounds) to blow up a multi-story apartment building in Moscow back in 1999, the year Vladimir Putin came to power. The agency published an info-graphic showing the area—a 3-kilometer radius—that could have been ravaged by the blast if somebody detonated the wagon in Moscow. “If the tank shells blew up at Perovo station, the aftermath could count thousands of victims,” Life News concluded.
The incident demonstrated, at a minimum, serious security issues along thousands of miles of the Russian railroad, as well as a lack of professionalism among high-profile military commanders. But there were many more reasons to feel concerned.
After all, while generals at the Ministry of Defense were looking for somebody to blame for the mysterious tank shells traveling from Far East to Moscow, several Russian submarines reportedly loaded with cruise missiles were heading towards Syria.
President Putin has put a lot of heavy metal in motion. What is his strategy? And what are the risks?
“A much bigger incident caused by the horrifying corruption of our authorities can take place any moment in Syria or Europe, or here in Russia,” former KGB captain and current Russian opposition leader Gennady Gudkov told The Daily Beast. “Our trouble is that President Putin is not capable of controlling even the army any longer, he just keeps control of the election process and financial flows, while all institutions with power are degrading, at all levels.”
Yet that does not stop supporters from advocating ever more aggressive postures. “Moscow is planning to take over eastern Aleppo during the period between the U.S. elections and the new president’s inauguration in a symbolical gesture to slap Obama in the face,” Sergei Markov, a member of the Public Chamber, told The Daily Beast. Markov said that he prepared “recommendations” for the Russian president, which he delivered to the presidential administration.
“By bringing our forces to Syria, Putin reminded the West what sort of military power Russia could apply,” Markov said. “Washington attacks us by supporting the coup in Ukraine, by economic sanctions, by deploying information war, and giving money to our opposition and Putin defends Russia from the USA, like Churchill defended the U.K from Hitler,” Markov said in the interview on Wednesday.
Yet Putin himself seems to be dialing back. At last week’s Valdai International Discussion Club, he delivered a speech insisting that Russia was not planning any attacks on the West. “It is unthinkable, foolish and completely unrealistic,” he said. “All of the NATO members together with the USA have a total population of 600 million, probably, but Russia has only 146 million,” Putin calculated. “It is simply absurd to even conceive such thoughts.”
Very few international newspapers covered the Voldai Club. It was seen as a boring event, but Putin’s responses reflect the contradictory messages he’s sending out. Fedor Lukyanov, research director of the Valdai International Discussion Club told The Daily Beast that the Kremlin ran out of strategic ideas after diplomacy failed to bring a settlement in Syria that Moscow could accept. “It is useless to think of strategy, as the modern world is too unpredictable, so Putin applies tactics, searches for the right way to react and find solutions to the issues,” Lulyanov added.
After trying to figure out Putin for 17 years, the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, Aleksei Venediktov, says he has stopped paying serious attention to the president’s words.
“I am not interested in what Putin has to say, I am only interested in his actual actions since, knowing him well, I can see that he has no real strategy, he reacts to whatever happens in the world,” Venediktov told The Daily Beast earlier this week.
Venediktov insisted that it is Putin’s quick reactions that could be most unexpected and most dangerous. “I am sure that Russian and NATO forces can get into a fight, but not in Syria. More likely in the Baltic countries. The fear of the war coming is not just somebody’s paranoia, there is a serious concern that war in Europe could begin with one incident, a few Russian nationals feeling offended by Latvia’s officials, say, or an accidental blast killing a couple of officers,” said Venediktov. “Only one man makes decisions in Russia—Putin, who has only one adviser and that is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”
How he would have reacted if seven tons of tank shells had blown up in the middle of Moscow we can only imagine. Fortunately, thanks to a railroad inspector, we won’t have to find out.