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How Russia’s secret service took control of the country’s top office

It was the year that Vladimir Putin got lucky.

In 1999, Russia’s feared security service the FSB — formerly known as the KGB — had given Boris Yeltsin a list of names of who would be allowed to succeed him as president.

“He could choose, quote-unquote, whomever he wanted to be the next president of Russia,” says Russian historian Yuri Felshtinsky.

“But all three candidates who were presented to him were from the FSB.”

The way Felshtinsky tells the story, in his new history of Russia’s secret services, From Red Terror to Terrorist State, the former KGB operative Putin was on the bottom of the list.

“There was Primakov, who was former director of the SVR, Foreign Intelligence Service. There was Stepashin, who was former director of the FSK [another incarnation of FSB before its name was changed], and then there was Putin,” he tells the ABC.

Yuri Felshtinsky is an historian and author of From Red Terror to Terrorist State.(Wikimedia Commons: Mykola Swarnyk )

In 1999, Yeltsin was coming to the end of his second term as president. The constitution — before Putin had it changed — prohibited him from running a third time.

The plan was for Yeltsin to resign before the end of his term and appoint the prime minister as acting president. Then the security services would have the inside running to get their man over the line to win the 2000 presidential election.

FSB candidate number one was Yevgeny Primakov, a former journalist with a keen interest in foreign affairs. But he had begun to upset the increasingly erratic and heavy-drinking Yeltsin.

According to Felshtinsky, Primakov “colluded with the State Duma and the communists and was dismissive of Yeltsin”.

There was talk of an impeachment and an unwillingness to provide guarantees the president and his family would get immunity from corruption charges following his resignation.

Primakov was scrubbed from the list.

FSB candidate number two Sergei Stepashin upset Yeltsin as well, being seen as “willing to compromise with his competitors and enemies”.

He was cut from the list as well.

Two men shake hands and look at each other

Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin was instrumental in Vladimir Putin’s rise to power.(Reuters: Itar Tass)

The last man standing was Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB who served in the secret service’s outpost of Dresden, East Germany during the Cold War before being appointed director of the FSB in 1998.

In August 1999, Yeltsin appointed Putin — a man who had never held elected office — as prime minister, in what was a shock to many outsiders.

As Matt Ivens, the editor of the Moscow Times, told British journalist John Sweeney the following year: “Yeltsin had been through a couple of prime ministers and each time he dropped them he made it clear that it had something to do with elections.

“By the end, he’s picking Vladimir Putin. No one has ever heard of Putin, except very careful watchers of politics or people from St. Petersburg.

“He’s announcing, ‘this is my successor, this is a man who can run the country’, and there is widespread ridicule.

“All the newspapers in town including ours said, there’s no way this guy could win an election unless something really extraordinary is going to happen.”

The following month something extraordinary did happen — a series of explosions ripped through four apartment blocks in Moscow, Buynaksk, Volgodonsk and Ryazan killing over 300 people.

Blowing up Russia

The apartment bombings were considered Russia’s equivalent of 9/11. Putin blamed the attacks on Chechen terrorists and ordered air strikes on the capital Grozny, the first stage of what became known as the Second Chechen War.

Fronting the media at the time, he promised to hunt down those responsible.

“We will pursue them everywhere,” he said in words that would reverberate around the country.

“We’ll wipe them out in the shithouse.”

Putin’s popularity began to climb. Within six months he had turned the dire polls around and comfortably won the presidential election with nearly twice as many votes of his nearest rival Gennady Zyuganov.

David Satter, an American journalist and historian who investigated the apartment bombings, and was later expelled from Russia, believed they were carried out not by Chechen militants, but by Russian security agents.

“I believe that Vladimir Putin came to power as the result of an act of terror committed against his own people,” he wrote.

“The evidence is overwhelming that the apartment-house bombings in 1999 … provided a pretext for the Second Chechen War and catapulted Putin into the presidency, were carried out by the Russian Federal Security Service [FSB].”