His government had just suffered one of Russia's worst terrorist attacks, apparently stemming from a war he has neither won nor ended. Then he attempted what critics considered a clumsy coverup before a key election.
But President Vladimir Putin has no need to fear any immediate electoral backlash. By all accounts, his candidate in the regional presidential election Sunday in the separatist republic of Chechnya will cruise to victory, undamaged by the government's widely criticized handling of the investigation into two near-simultaneous plane crashes.
Alu Alkhanov, the interior minister in the pro-Moscow government running Chechnya, appears to have sewn up an election that observers say was never really a contest. A relatively anonymous career police officer who gives interviews wearing a camouflage uniform, Alkhanov has been propelled to the fore by an elaborate Kremlin campaign to eliminate any potential opposition in the war-torn region.
"The election was over in June when Putin picked Alu Alkhanov," Alexander Cherkasov, a board member of the human rights group Memorial, said Saturday. "What will happen tomorrow will just be a formality."
The two passenger jets fell out of the sky within three minutes of each other Tuesday night, killing all 90 people aboard in the world's first apparent attack involving more than one plane since the hijackings in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Russian authorities initially attributed the tragedy to human or mechanical error in what critics complained was a transparent effort to hide the facts until after the election.
Officials now acknowledge that the planes were destroyed by terrorist bombings. Investigators disclosed Friday that they discovered traces of the explosive hexogen, also known as cyclonite or RDX, in the wreckage of the Tu-154 airliner that crashed near the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. On Saturday, they confirmed finding signs of the same explosives in the other plane, a Tu-134 jet that crashed in the Tula region south of Moscow.
Investigators are piecing together an apparent plot in which two Chechen women used tickets bought at the last minute to board the planes at a Moscow airport, one on each plane, and triggered explosives to bring down the jets about 500 miles apart. An Islamic group called the Islambouli Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retribution for Russian abuses in Chechnya.
"The explosions aboard the planes weren't aimed at Alkhanov," Cherkasov said. "They were aimed at the leadership of Russia."
The election was forced by another act of terrorism, a bombing in the Chechen capital of Grozny in May that killed the region's Moscow-allied president, Akhmad Kadyrov.
The Kremlin initially promoted Kadyrov's son, Ramzan, who heads a militia that has been accused of widespread torture and abuses. But Putin picked Alkhanov as his choice to run the republic, even though Alkhanov had none of the political authority or experience that the elder Kadyrov had.
The Kremlin then set about clearing the field for Alkhanov. His main rival would have been Malik Saidullayev, a Chechen businessman in Moscow who has built a widespread following in his home territory because of his charitable efforts. Polls have shown him to be the most popular political figure in Chechnya.
Saidullayev tried to run against Kadyrov last year, only to be knocked off the ballot because of supposed technical problems with his candidacy petitions after he refused Kremlin demands that he drop out. This time, Saidullayev paid a filing fee rather than taking chances with petitions, but he was stricken from the ballot because authorities said his passport listed his place of birth as "Chechnya" instead of the "Chechen-Ingush republic," as it was called when he was born.
"What can you do?" Saidullayev said in an interview. "Unfortunately that's the way things are. That's our country."
Saidullayev noted that he used the same passport when he filed last year, and no one complained then. Moreover, he added, Alkhanov's passport listed his place of birth the same way, but he was allowed to trade it in.
Kremlin political aides began to construct Alkhanov's image, portraying him as the rightful heir to Kadyrov. Putin made a surprise trip to Chechnya last weekend, and with Alkhanov at his side, laid a wreath at Kadyrov's grave. The next day, authorities arranged to pay 5,000 rubles, or $170, to women who gave birth on Kadyrov's birthday and another 5,000 rubles if they named the newborns after him.
Putin also announced he would give Chechnya control over the local oil company's profits, a gift to Alkhanov that Kadyrov had sought unsuccessfully. And refugees were told they would be compensated for war losses if they returned to Chechnya by Friday, two days before the vote.
The separatists have not accepted this without response. Last weekend, between 250 and 400 armed guerrillas staged an incursion into Grozny. Forty-eight soldiers, rebels and civilians were killed and another 34 injured in the fighting, according to Memorial, the rights group.
Umar Dzhabrailov, who represents Chechnya in the upper house of parliament, said the only way to stop the war and end attacks was for the winner of the election to rebuild the ravaged region with the help of the other countries.
"The republic is destroyed," he said in an interview, and the people need help. "If we don't bring them to our side, then the other side will bring them to theirs."