For almost a month, Russian urban centers have been brought to a standstill by fake bomb threats. Police say there’s not much they can do about it.
Since November 28, 2019, a range of Russian institutions, from daycares to courthouses, have been receiving massive waves of bomb threats. The threats have forced a corresponding wave of evacuations, leaving schools scrambling to make up for lost time and retailers facing significant sales gaps. So far, no explosive devices have been found.
The last time Russia faced a logistical attack of this nature was in 2017. This time, the motive appears to be financial: The anonymous messages carrying the threats have demanded that a wealthy entrepreneur and media mogul named Konstantin Malofeyev transfer 120 bitcoin (currently more than $901,000) to the perpetrators before they cease their activities. The messages say that amount of money disappeared in 2018 from the Russian cryptocurrency exchange Wex; they referenced a report from the BBC Russian Service indicating that a total of more than $400 million lost from the exchange may have been transferred by the exchange’s owners to the Federal Security Service (FSB) as a ransom.
Following the 2018 scandal at Wex, the exchange was sold to the family of Dmitry Khavchenko, a former fighter for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic who is reportedly close to Malofeyev. The entrepreneur himself has denied any connections with Wex and said the current bomb threats are an attempt to discredit him personally. On December 23, the anonymous threats reportedly began including messages saying they would soon increase their demands to 10,000 bitcoin (almost $74 million).
Meanwhile, on a daily basis, people are being evacuated by the thousands from buildings in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, and a number of other large Russian cities. In Moscow alone, more than 750,000 people have been evacuated from more than 7,000 malls, universities, schools, daycares, medical facilities, metro stations, and airports.
The number and frequency of the threats is such that, for various reasons, not every building that receives a threat can be evacuated. Some medical patients could die if taken from their beds, bomb squads in many areas are overwhelmed, and the St. Petersburg police force has received so many threatening messages that it can’t even read them fast enough to keep up and notify the targets.
In Moscow, the city government’s Education Department has released a video explaining the school system’s response to the evacuations. Students, it said, will not have to go to school over the holidays to make up for lost time; instead, distance learning will make up for the gaps.
Newspaper reports have contradicted that assurance: Novaya Gazeta reported that evacuations in some areas have forced days off to be canceled, preschoolers to keep their jackets on during naptime, and elementary schoolers to catch colds en masse while waiting outside. Some schools have been evacuated up to nine times each in recent weeks. One 73-year-old teacher in the far eastern city of Birobidzhan even died in the course of an evacuation, and a group of St. Petersburg students were injured in the rush to escape their building.
Meduza spoke with multiple sources close to the St. Petersburg police department about their efforts to stop the threats and catch the perpetrators. The sources confessed that attacks like these are often a hopeless case: The bomb threats are typically sent through encrypted email services like ProtonMail, and law-enforcement officials are rarely able to locate those responsible.
Igor Bederov, the founder of a private investigative company called Internet Search, told Meduza that the individuals who send mass bomb threats typically fall into two categories: professional terrorists and extortionists. On very rare occasions, he added, the latter succeed in extracting money from their victims. The current perpetrators appear to be motivated by that prospect of financial gain, but other information about them has been harder to trace. By corresponding with the sources of similar threats and gathering metadata in the process, Bederov’s company has been able to trace other messages to Hungary, Ukraine, Turkey, and Israel, but investigators can rarely identify the senders themselves.
Anonymous police sources confirmed to Meduza that Ukraine is one common source of threatening calls, but when local security forces there refuse to undertake a collaborative investigation, Russian officials are typically unable to solve cases on their own. Official Russian police statistics for 2019 indicate that almost 40 percent of fraudulent threats are actually traced back to a perpetrator, but as the total number of threats grows explosively, law-enforcement agencies have struggled to keep up. Officials told Meduza that only one set of culprits has proved easy to manage: Drunk, unemployed Russian men between the ages of 30 and 49 make up the bulk of individuals who are ultimately prosecuted for false threats of terrorism.