MOSCOW — Reports of a foiled plan to assassinate Vladimir Putin set off waves of skepticism Monday as distrust of the government erupted publicly just days before Sunday’s presidential election.
Russians have long been quietly cynical of their leaders, and the Internet has been home to widespread irreverence about Putin and his government. But the street protests that have roiled Moscow since December’s parliamentary elections have had wide resonance. Now even long-defanged politicians are willing to openly voice suspicions about governmental integrity, and on the feared subject of terrorism.
On Monday, Russia’s main television channel reported that authorities in Ukraine had foiled a Chechen-inspired plot to assassinate Putin just after the election, which he is expected to win easily.
Despite numerous details about the alleged plot and confessions shown on national television, disbelief reverberated throughout Moscow, even reaching the long-acquiescent halls of the national parliament, the State Duma. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nationalist leader who has consistently voted with the government, called the plot a hoax. “A trick that stinks” was the way Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader and presidential candidate, described it. Even believers were uncomfortable about the timing.
“The event dates back to February 4 and news about it has emerged today, on the last week before voting,” said Sergei Mironov, a Duma deputy, presidential candidate and head of A Just Russia. “I have the feeling that all this is not a mere coincidence.”
Putin’s press secretary gave a furious response.
“Considering the gravity of the plot and also that the seriousness of the threat was confirmed during the preliminary investigation,” said Dmitry Peskov, “such statements are blasphemous, to say the least.”
He said everyone knows that Putin has many enemies eager to prevent him from carrying out his duties.
“May those who are making such statements never have so many and such enemies,” Peskov said.
News of an assassination plot broke on Russia’s Channel One, which showed two men, held in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, who reportedly confessed to the plot against Putin in early February after undergoing weeks of questioning.
One of the men, a 31-year-old Chechen identified as Adam Osmayev, was shown kneeling on the floor, his face and hands bloodied. Later, he appeared with one hand covered in bandages, his face blotchy with a green antiseptic called zelyonka.
The broadcast report said he was part of a group ordered by Chechen warlord Doku Umarov to carry out the attack. One suspect — identified as Ilya Pyanzin, 28 and a citizen of Kazakhstan— said he had traveled to Ukraine from the United Arab Emirates by way of Turkey.
The men lived in an apartment in Odessa where an explosion on Jan. 4 triggered a police investigation. The probe into the blast yielded evidence of attempts to build a bomb. A third suspect was killed in the explosion, the report said.
“They told us we should go to Odessa to begin with, learn how to make bombs,” Pyanzin said on video footage. “There would be an attempt on Putin’s life.”
Osmayev reportedly met the other two accused conspirators in Odessa, where he provided them with details of the plan.
“The ultimate goal was to arrive in Moscow and make an attempt on the life of Prime Minister Putin,” Osmayev said in the video.
Pyanzin said that Umarov hired him and Ruslan Madayev, the 26-year-old man who died in the explosion, to kill Putin. He said they planned to set off a bomb on Kutuzovsky Prospect, the wide avenue along which Putin frequently drives when traveling from his home to government offices.
Images were shown of Putin’s entourage traveling along Kutuzovsky. The television report said the footage was found on Pyanzin’s laptop. The men hid explosives near a railway station close to Kutuzovsky in 2007, the report said, and police found them only a few days ago.
Putin, 59, who is expected to win the presidential election handily, has a long history of confrontation with Chechnya, a rebellious Islamic region of southern Russia that tried to break away from Russia in the 1990s. Although the region has been mostly pacified under the rule of strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, it has been the source of bloody terrorist attacks against Moscow in recent years, and fear of those attacks has unified Russians behind Putin. Until now, few would dare to make light of the prospect of another one.
Gennady Gudkov, a Duma deputy and former colonel in the Federal Security Service, said the possibility of attacks was real, but so were the doubts.
“The threat of assassination plots against leaders always exists in a country fighting against terrorism and extremism,” he told reporters. “But the release of reports about an alleged assassination attempt just five days before Election Day largely devalues this information.”
Valery Rashkin, a Communist Duma deputy, recalled to reporters Monday that apartment buildings were blown up in Moscow in 1999, only months before Putin became president for the first time, and blamed on Chechen terrorists. The bombings provided deep public support for attacks on rebellious Chechnya.
“His election campaign was built on the fact that only he was capable of preventing similar attacks in the future,” said Rashkin. “But he failed. There were lots of terrorist attacks afterwards.”
The last attack was a bomb that killed 37 people at Domodedovo Airport on Jan. 24, 2011. A young Ingushetian man who died in the blast was identified as the suicide bomber, and Umarov has been accused of masterminding the attack.
Several plots against Putin have been reported since 2000, with the last one just before the 2008 presidential election. At that time the targets were said to be Putin, who was leaving the presidency to take on the post of prime minister, and Dmitry Medvedev, who was about to be elected president.