Russia is anxious to present a safe World Cup. But have they just covered up a terrorist attack?

Oliver Carroll

Russian police have published a video interrogation of a taxi driver who drove into pedestrians in central Moscow on Saturday. In it, he claims he got his pedals mixed up and lost control after 20 straight hours of driving.

The testimony fell in line with official accounts, which described the incident as a “tragic accident” soon after the news broke. But some have pointed at inconsistencies in both accounts, with speculation that authorities may be covering up a more serious incident.

The driver is reported to be a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia. In the recording, he says he tried to brake in order to let a pedestrian cross the road, but instead hit the wrong pedal and accelerated into the crowd. He then ran from the scene “for fear of being killed”. Contrary to what the police said at the time, the driver insisted he was not drunk.

“My father drank a lot, and I haven’t had a drop all my life,” he told the interrogator.

A video of the incident released yesterday does not seem to bear out the driver’s account of what happened. Most obviously, his car appears to accelerate after the driver passes the pedestrian at the zebra crossing, before swerving to the right, with shocking consequences. Eight people were injured in the collision, one seriously.

Russia’s state media has been slow in reporting the incident, and some ignored it altogether. In the past, media outlets that are loyal to the government have maintained news blackouts for terror-related incidents. Kremlin officials have praised such behaviour, unlikely to be totally voluntary, saying it avoids copycat crimes.

In February 2016, for example, most chose not to report a woman who appeared at a Moscow metro station with a decapitated baby’s head, shouting “Allahu akbar.” (It was later reported the woman had mental health problems.) In December 2017, after a bus ploughed into a busy underpass in rush hour, most Russian stations again chose not to question the official account of a driver losing control. CCTV footage released later seemed inconsistent with that narrative.

“We don’t know what happened and just because this guy is from Kyrgyzstan does not mean he is a terrorist,” says the security expert Mark Galeotti. “But we also know that we can’t trust the official Russian line.”

According to Mr Galeotti, jihadism from Central Asia is something of a blind spot for Russia’s security agencies.

“They are pretty good when it comes to controlling the North Caucasus, but reliant on often questionable intelligence from local security agencies for Central Asia,” he says. “It’s what keeps FSB generals awake at night.”

The Kremlin has rolled out a massive, almost heavy handed, security operation at the World Cup. Like many countries, Russia suffers from an ongoing terrorist threat. At the same time, warnings from Western governments to travelling fans have seemed alarmist given the low number of recent attacks and the fearsome local security.

Mr Galeotti says the exaggerated threat warnings may have forced Moscow to overcompensate, and to declare, by default, that the incident had nothing to do with terror. Russia is uptight, he says; it knows anything that happens in 11 host cities will be analysed forensically and through the prism of the World Cup.

And that has produced a vicious cycle.

“When you suppress information, you raise suspicions and you provoke no end of speculation,” he says.