A journalist alleges that allied spies are behind sabotage inside Russia, so we looked at recent explosions. We’re not so sure.
- A journalist alleges that allied spies are behind sabotage inside Russia, so we looked at recent explosions. We’re not so sure.
- A covert campaign, sleeper cells, and the Allied spy services
- Deadly fires were common in Russia before the war
- Recent explosions and fires in Russia
- Island of Sakhalin
- Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug–Yugra
- Oryol Oblast
- Primorsky Krai
- St. Petersburg
- Reporting on the total number of injuries and deaths is incomplete.
- Apartment and house explosions
- Warehouses and industrial locations
- Shopping centers
- Pipeline explosions
Former Army Ranger-turned-journalist, Jack Murphy, published a deep-dive alleging a covert campaign by the allied spy services inside of Russia. We are unable to verify the claims, and Murphy is the lone source.
We assess the unverified claims as plausible, though not the most likely explanation. Reviewing cases of fires, explosions and strikes found through media reporting and historical fire-related death data, we found few examples that had a discernible strategic benefit that could justify such a risk. The current administration has hesitated to send weapons capable of striking Russian territory for fear of drawing the United States into war.
The most common event was a gas explosion in a residential dwelling like a house or apartment, which accounted for at least 1/3 of the events Hoaxlines assessed. Data on the number of lethal fires in Russia, which we discuss in more detail below, indicate the instances we found in media reporting should account for only a fraction of the true number.
Russia published that it received around 6200 reports of deaths in fires, with nearly 7300 dying in 2018. Considering that this means multiple lethal fires occur in Russia every day, what seemed to be a spike in explosions and fires may be a mixture of unrelated, simultaneous events that we’ve merely noticed because of the war. If such a sabotage effort did occur, the most likely locations might be industrial centers closer to the Ukrainian border.
A covert campaign, sleeper cells, and the Allied spy services
According to Murphy, the campaign aims to interfere with Moscow's invasion of Ukraine using activated sleeper cells and decades-old weapons caches. Among those providing Murphy with intel, he cites three former US intelligence officials, two former US military officials, and a US person who has been briefed on the campaign.
Murphy says this covert effort is “responsible for many of the unexplained explosions” since Russia began its full-scale invasion in February. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty noted recently, “Some of the blazes have destroyed facilities that were vital for Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.”
We found around thirty incidents in the past few months that ranged from apartment explosions to burned shopping centers to pipeline eruptions to burned warehouses and even a historical mansion on fire. The list should not be considered complete at this time as new events occur multiple times per week, and we primarily looked at media reporting in November and December.
Deadly fires were common in Russia before the war
Russia reported around 6200 reports of people dying in fires, with nearly 7300 dying in 2018. For comparison, between 2019 to 2021, the US averaged 21 serious incidents per year, with over twice the number of citizens as Russia.
The largest number of fires with human casualties took place in the Moscow region - 205 (219 dead), Sverdlovsk region - 202 (245 dead), Perm region - 199 (238), Krasnoyarsk region - 182 (189), Chelyabinsk region - 162 (183), Leningrad region 156 (178), Nizhny Novgorod region - 155 (165). More than 100 cases of such fires happened in Voronezh, Rostov, Irkutsk, Kemerovo, Novosibirsk, Tver, Volgograd, Kirov, Samara, Saratov regions, and a number of other regions.
A local Russian publication in Perm reported around 7300 accidents (not deaths) in housing and communal living spaces for the prior “heating season.” The article did not indicate they expected fewer accidents soon.
Some incident types seem unlikely to be part of a sabotage operation, especially considering that last year Russia needed to invest around 55 billion USD to modernize and improve depreciating infrastructure, which had depreciated by 70% to 80% in some locations. The country also sees a high number of oil spills per year.
Other explosions, like the visually stunning explosion in Chuvashia on December 20, seem more plausible than the residential explosions. Still, this is a long way from demonstrating that allied spy services are responsible. The CIA denies that its employees were responsible for the mysterious explosions in Russia in 2022; however, this differs from saying they were not involved in any capacity.
A more likely scenario might be that unrelated events appear connected because they occurred at a similar time, and outsiders are unfamiliar with how common these accidents are. One could imagine a combination of explanations that includes Russian nationalists who have grown tired of Putin resorting to arson; explosions due to a lack of maintenance on oil and gas pipelines; and a few acts of foreign sabotage closer to the border between the two countries.
Recent explosions and fires in Russia
Island of Sakhalin
- November 19 (Tymovskoye)
- December 13 (Elista)
Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug–Yugra
- November 14 (electromechanical plant in Podolsk)
- November 20 (Komsomolskaya Square)
- November 25 (Elohovsky Passage)
- December 2 (Mikoyan Plant, Volgogradsky Prospekt)
- December 5 (Yaroslavl)
- December 9 (Khimki)
- December 10 (Lopukhin Mansion)
- December 12 (Balashikha shopping center)
- December 23 (All-Russian Institute of Light Alloys)
- October 26 (Metallostroy)
- November 19 (Vsevolozhsky district)
- December 3 (Krasnogvardeisky)
- December 29 (Nevsky district)
- December 4 (Yekaterinburg)
- Occurred within the borders of the Russian Federation (Ukraine is not the Russian Federation. Neither is Crimea).
- Involved a fire, explosion, or strike that required emergency response of any kind.
- Took place between Feb 24, 2022, and December 29, 2022.
- No alternate explanation that is supported by evidence (Government officials in the Russian Federation are not credible sources).
Two outside professionals in all-source intelligence reviewed this report. The reviews were not blind and resulted in further clarifications in the text.
Reporting on the total number of injuries and deaths is incomplete.
Reporting for some locations did not include a final or initial death toll. In some cases, someone was listed in critical condition, but there is no further information. The number of injured and dead, 46 people, should be viewed as an absolute minimum, where the true count may be relatively similar or much higher.
The most lethal incident was an apartment explosion on the island of Sakhalin, which is close to Japan relative to Europe. So far, ten people have been reported dead, but dozens more were listed as missing and may be trapped beneath the rubble.
Apartment and house explosions
Tymovskoye, Island of Sakhalin
Yaroslavl, Yaroslavskaya Oblast
Nizhnevartovsk, Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug–Yugra
Lopukhins' estate in center of Moscow
Warehouses and industrial locations
Vsevolozhsky district, St. Petersburg
Komsomolskaya Square, Moscow
Kirovsky district, Volgograd
Mikoyan Meat Processing Plant, Moscow
Vladivostok, Primorsky Krai
Mega Khimki shopping center, Khimki, Moscow Oblast
StroyTrakt shopping center, Balashikha, Moscow
Metallostroy, Saint Petersburg
Vurnarsky district, Chuvashia