THE STRANGE CASE OF THE MOSCOW SIEGE – 18 June 2003

Dr Julian Lewis: I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Calum MacDonald) not only on having secured the debate, but on having made such a comprehensive case in such a measured way. I recall some years before I became a Member of Parliament being particularly impressed by an article that he wrote for the Daily Telegraph, unusually for a Labour MP at that time, on the double standards which were sometimes applied by some people on the left to the misbehaviour of the Soviet bloc countries and the abuse of human rights there. Therefore, his stance today is entirely consistent with his honourable and long record on such subjects.

In view of the temperate spirit in which the hon. Gentleman made his case, I preface my remarks, which will focus on the narrow aspect of the activities, or possible activities, of the Russian Intelligence Service, the FSB, by saying that leaders of countries do not always know exactly what their intelligence services have been up to. [Interruption.] I note a few gentle laughs at that point.

Mr Richard Spring (West Suffolk): And vice versa.

Dr Lewis: I cannot imagine what my hon. Friend is referring to.

President Putin will shortly arrive for a visit, but President Musharraf of Pakistan is in the country now. He is a good example of the point that I have just made, because, although he has been at the forefront of the fight against al-Qaeda, it is also well known that the Pakistani intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence, has played a large part in generating, sustaining and supporting al-Qaeda over many years. That support is not necessarily believed to have come to an end immediately after the events of September 2001.

I am concerned that all is not as clear as it might be in the case of Chechnya and the Russian Intelligence Service. Ever since Churchill famously described Russia as

"a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma"

one has known that not everything should be taken at face value. It must be said that if the Chechens are entirely responsible for some terrorist activities to which Russia has been subjected at least since 1999, they have been extraordinarily bad tacticians. I have in mind the terrible explosions of September 1999, which occurred in apartment blocks in Moscow. The explosions were laid at the door of Chechen extremists and happened, conveniently, to provide the perfect casus belli for the second Russian invasion of Chechnya, which took place on 30 September that year.

There have been persistent suggestions – not just from the usual suspects – that the explosions might have been organised as a provocation and a pretext, rather than as a curiously counter-productive activity by Chechen extremists that could serve only to give the Russians the reasons they might want to renew hostilities – something they did with surprising rapidity as soon as the explosions occurred.

I am particularly concerned about the events that took place during the siege of the Moscow theatre which began on 23 October 2002. Something never quite added up. A theatre was taken over by a large number of people, many of whom had explosives strapped to their bodies; yet, when that theatre was stormed, not one of them exploded any of the devices which they had brought in. Even more sinister is the fact that not one of the quite large number of hostage-takers was taken alive, even though the point of the Russian attack on the theatre was to immobilise them to such an extent that they would be unable to explode the devices strapped to their bodies.

One cannot have it both ways. On the one hand, the situation could have been so dangerous that, as in the case of the SAS handling of the Iranian Embassy siege, there was no question of taking prisoners, because death and destruction might follow unless every hostage-taker was eliminated immediately. If that was the case, however, it is inconceivable that not one of those people could explode a device.

On the other hand, if those people were so incapacitated, as they evidently were, that they could not explode their devices, why did the Russian authorities not act, if not from any sense of simple humanity, then from the common-sense desire for the intelligence that might be gained from interrogating captives who had mounted such a damaging, dangerous and destructive operation in the heart of the Russian capital city? Why were those considerations put aside and the people executed on the spot while unconscious? Make no mistake about it, that is precisely what happened. Those people were out for the count and they were executed in cold blood.

One might say that those who live by hostage-taking deserve what they get, and I have some sympathy with that view; but it does not add up as a rational policy for an intelligence service apparently fighting a war against terrorism unnecessarily to kill every terrorist who comes into its power, when some might be kept alive and pumped for useful information on the terrorist organisation that they represent.

In that connection, I turn to an article sent to me by someone who has learned the hard way a great deal about Russian methods of operation, although, admittedly, Russian methods during the Cold War – the famous and heroic Soviet dissident – Vladimir Bukovsky. Members will know that he survived 12 years of incarceration under the Soviet regime, many of them in the notorious Serbsky Institute – the psychiatric institute for the torture of sane people.

Vladimir sent me a French AFP – L'Agence France-Presse – report dated 28 April this year, which begins:

"Russian media on Monday accused the security services of placing a 'mole' among radical Chechen rebels who seized a Moscow theatre last October in a siege that ended with 129 deaths.

In a report backed by a Chechen rebel spokesman and a Russian former security officer, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta said former Chechen journalist Khanpach Terkipayev had infiltrated and helped to guide the 41-strong Chechen team that burst into the theatre.

The former officer claimed Moscow needed the hostage-taking because Western capitals were talking up prospects of negotiations with the separatist leadership in the breakaway southern Russian republic of Chechnya."

Of course, I now see warning lights flashing, as everyone says: "Oh, typical. The hon. Member for New Forest, East – a typical conspiracy theory." All I would say is that that is not just my conspiracy theory, and it is not something that should be seen in isolation.

There was a remarkable convenience about the apartment bomb explosions that took place so soon before the second Russian invasion of Chechnya. Here, one again sees a possible, credible and, I would say, quite convincing explanation which would account for two things. First, it might be seen to be in the perceived interests of the FSB, if not the Russian leadership themselves, that such a siege should take place. Secondly, it would explain why it was not considered necessary, or even desirable, for any of those terrorists – I make no bones about calling them terrorists, and they were undoubtedly Chechens – who took the hostages to be taken alive and interrogated. What they might have had to say on the subject could have been more revealing than the FSB would have liked.

I shall not detain the House for much longer, but conclude by illustrating the fact that there is a long and dishonourable tradition of pretexts being found for invasions. If one goes back to August 1968, which I am old enough to remember, one recalls that the line given out by the Soviet propaganda machine was that there was no such thing as the Soviet invasion of Prague, but that the Soviet forces were invited in by the Czechs. I see the hon. Liberal Democrat Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) nodding his assent; he also remembers that. I recall a typical East European black-humour joke of the time:

"What are tanks and 30,000 Soviet troops doing in Czechoslovakia?"

The answer:

"Looking for the people who invited them there."

However, the tradition goes back much further. For example, had Germany won the war, it would have been said not that the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, but that the Poles attacked the German radio station at Gleiwitz, just on the German side of the German-Polish border. An SS thug called Naujocks mounted an operation in which a victim from a concentration camp was selected, dressed up in Polish Army uniform, executed and left at the site of the radio station as the pretext. Even Adolf Hitler sometimes felt it necessary to have an excuse for his aggressions. I am sure that better historians than I could cite many more examples from further back in history.

My theory is not as far-fetched as it seems, and those who wonder whether I am seeing phantoms where there are none must come up with a simple explanation. There was something fishy, strange and orchestrated about the way that that large number of people were able to take over the theatre, and the fact that once they had been rendered unconscious and unable to set off any of their many explosive devices, they were killed in their sleep rather than kept for interrogation. If someone can explain that to me, I will abandon my conspiracy theory. Until then, however, I shall remain cautious, sceptical and cynical about some of the dirty games being played in the terrible war that Russia is waging in Chechnya.