Sabotage or coincidence? : a series of fires in Russia raises questions

Sabotage or coincidence?
The series of fires in Russia raises questions

By Kai Stoppel

Since the attack on Ukraine, reports of fires in strategically important locations across Russia have multiplied. It is not known if the fires are related. However, there is already speculation about the possible causes of the series of fires.

A series of explosions and fires at strategic locations across Russia has caused a stir since the start of the war in Ukraine. Important arms factories and military installations are affected. At least three people were killed in a fire at an ammunition factory in the Urals city of Perm on Monday. The question of whether there is a connection between the fires is still completely open.

Recent fires at fuel depots and ammunition depots in cities such as Belgorod, Bryansk and Voronezh seem somewhat explicable. These are no more than 200 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, which makes it conceivable that Ukrainian missiles or planes could attack them. According to Russian sources, an attack with three Totschka-U rockets triggered the explosion of an ammunition depot in Belgorod in late March. Moscow blamed two Ukrainian helicopters for the fire at the oil storage facility in early April. Ukraine generally denies these allegations.

However, there are also fires in strategic places that are beyond the reach of Ukrainian missiles, helicopters and drones. On April 21, a devastating fire broke out at a Russian missile force research institute in the city of Tver, northwest of Moscow, more than 500 kilometers from Ukraine. The institution is considered a central institute of the Ministry of Defense and participated in the development of the Iskander missile, which Russia is currently using extensively in the war against Ukraine. According to the Russian state agency Tass, the fire could have been caused by obsolete electric cables. After initially citing six deaths, the death toll had risen to a total of 20 by the end of April, according to media reports.

Another fire broke out the same day at one of the country’s largest chemical plants. The Dimitrevsky plant in Kineshma, more than 300 kilometers east of Moscow, is a major solvent producer for Russia and Eastern Europe. At the same time, it produces fuels that are important for the construction of precision-guided missiles that Russia needs for the war in Ukraine.

Controversial publisher’s warehouse on fire

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The Moscow warehouse burned down to almost 34,000 square meters.

(Photo: IMAGO/ITAR-TASS)

Then on Tuesday, a huge warehouse in Moscow caught fire. The particularity: according to the media, the camp is used by the Russian publishing house Prosveshcheniye (“Enlightenment”), which publishes school textbooks. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the publisher made headlines with its decision to erase Ukraine from Russian textbooks. The publishing house would also be run by a friend of Putin, Arkady Rotenberg.

The series of fires is a mystery. Is this an unfortunate coincidence or does sabotage play a role? And if so, who could be behind it? And is there a connection with the war in Ukraine?

Strategy consultant Marcus Ewald counts Twitter a number of possible explanations that are currently under discussion. For example, that a resistance movement in Russia could be responsible for the fires. “This is supported by the fact that all buildings are extremely important and require insider knowledge,” writes Ewald. “One argument against that is that it would mean very complex and diverse coordination and infiltration.” Another possible cause: the fires could be used to cover up corruption, as funds may have been misappropriated and sanctions are now threatened due to investigations.

Ewald also cites attrition as a hypothesis for the series of fires. “There is a lack of spare parts and software support everywhere, factories in particular lead to wear and tear on parts and also on people.” Dmitry Alperovitch, president of think tank Silverado Policy Accelerator, told the Washington Post that accidental fires are not uncommon in Russia. The country is notorious for poor maintenance and Western sanctions make it difficult to source spare parts for vital machinery.

“Probably a colorful mix of everything”

“In addition to attrition, employee motivation to pay attention to safety and orderliness of operations could have dropped sharply,” Ewald wrote on Twitter. He speaks of “passive sabotage”. The Russian secret service FSB could also be behind the fires. “Someone at the FSB might be interested in the end of the war and Putin leaving. The argument against that is that the buildings are all so important that no patriot can want that.” Ewald considers it much less likely that the fires were caused by Ukrainian or American intelligence. The secrecy, infiltration and coordination required are too complex.

Cyberattacks or secret US satellites that use a “previously unknown radiation weapon” to set buildings on fire, Ewald considers the least likely. So far, however, there is little evidence of the actual context of the fires. “I guess it’s actually a colorful mix of everything,” Ewald says.

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