RAY SUAREZ: Days of speculation led many Russians to believe the near simultaneous airline crashes on Tuesday were no coincidence. And today, Russian investigators called at least one of the crashes a "terrorist act," after traces of explosive were found in the wreckage.
FSB SPOKESMAN (Translated): The results of the investigation into Flight TU-154 have found traces of an explosive substance. Preliminary analysis suggests that it is hexogen, but further investigations are being carried out.
RAY SUAREZ: Both planes departed from Moscow's main international airport on Tuesday evening. The first plane was bound for the Black Sea resort of Sochi and crashed in Tula. The second headed toward Volgograd. It went down within minutes of the first plane crash, near Rostov-on-Don. Eyewitnesses reported seeing a mid-air explosion...
EYEWITNESS (Translated): First there was the sound of roaring, as if the plane was flying very low, then came an explosion, like thunder, followed by two more blasts after a couple of seconds, and that was it.
RAY SUAREZ: Relatives of the victims visited morgues to identify their loved ones remains. But no one has claimed the bodies of two female passengers, one from each plane. The women had Chechen names and are under investigation.
Immediately after the crashes, Russian President Putin cut his vacation short and returned to Moscow. Putin's time in office has been punctuated by frequent terror attacks from Chechen rebels. The separatist region of Chechnya has tried to obtain independence from Russia for a decade. Putin's loyal ally in Chechnya, President Kadyrov was assassinated by rebels in May...and elections for his replacement are this Sunday.
Today, on a Web site connected to Islamic militants, there was a claim of responsibility for the crashes ... and a warning that more attacks would follow.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the latest news about the downed aircraft and who might be responsible, we turn to Lawrence Sheets, National Public Radio's Moscow bureau chief and Michael McFaul, associate professor of political science at Stanford University.
Lawrence Sheets, let's start with you. What's the latest that the government has released about their investigation into the crashes?
LAWRENCE SHEETS: Well, the latest is something that people have been speculating about all week wrong, that is the federal security service confirming today that they know there was an explosion on board at least one of the two planes. They found residue from an explosive. And they say that there's no question that terrorism was the result of that plane coming down, it split up in mid-air, as most people know.
And the second plane they say they have not finished the investigation yet, we'll have to wait for the results on that. There's no question that the authorities are leaning towards the theory that both of these planes came down as the result of terrorist acts.
RAY SUAREZ: So this is an all or nothing kind of assumption? At first they were reluctant to point to terrorism as a cause, but now they're looking at both planes now that they've established one?
LAWRENCE SHEETS: Well, there's some other factors involved. The federal security service also says that they've identified the remains of two Chechen women. There was one woman on each plane. And quite interestingly, the relatives of these two women have not come forward to claim the bodies, although the relatives from all of the other passengers aboard both of the planes have come forward. They say that's a very suspicious sign.
I think that there was a lot of skepticism from the very beginning here in Moscow about the possibility that there was anything other than a terrorist attack. There was talk that it could have been poor fuel, it could have been pilot error. But the circumstances being so mysterious with these planes taking off in the same wing of the same airport, and basically disappearing from radar screens within just minutes of each other over southern Russia, had a lot of people wondering from the very beginning.
RAY SUAREZ: There have been facts that have sort of been thrown up by various people in Moscow, then retracted. What about the distress alert that was discussed coming from one of the planes?
LAWRENCE SHEETS: Yes, from the very beginning the owner of one of the planes, the plane that landed about 500 miles south of Moscow, said that he received a hijack alert signal. Now, there's a button inside the TU-154 aircraft that the pilots can push in the event of a hijacking, in the event of their being taken over. They say they did receive this signal and they received - this airline - Siberian airlines received an automatically generated signal -- telegrammed from the air traffic control center alerting them of this problem.
They've maintained all along that something was very amiss on this flight and that they believe an explosion brought down this plane so, they've been very consistent about that. I think the inconsistencies come from some government officials who said, well, this could have been an SOS alert, we're not sure that it was a hijack alert.
RAY SUAREZ: Today there was a claim of responsibility for these attacks. Is the group well-known to Russians? And is this their MO?
LAWRENCE SHEETS: Well, as a matter of fact, this is a group that the spokesman for the federal security service, the successor to the Soviet KGB, said he had never heard of today. It seems to be a very obscure group. This was a claim published on a militant pro-Islamist Web site in Arabic, claiming that it had five hijackers on each plane, which sounds rather sensational.
Aviation experts here in Moscow and indeed some government officials saying that it sounds a bit far-fetched -- sometimes some of these smaller groups like to take credit for something that they would regard as a victory over their enemies, which they regard the Russians as an enemy.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor McFaul, while this claim that Lawrence Sheets says is not being taken seriously that's come through, the head of the Chechen separatist movement - Aslan Maskhadov -- has said it wasn't us. Could that be true?
MICHAEL McFAUL: Oh, of course it could be true. It's important to realize that in Chechnya, the armies and militias and terrorists fighting the Russians are not one organization. There are many different organizations there. Some, like Mr. Maskhadov, are fighting primarily for Chechen independence, that's their political objective.
But others who are closely tied to al-Qaida and probably are supported by al-Qaida are part of a bigger fundamentalist Messianic battle against the West. And this group sounds, we don't know who they are - "the Islambouli Brigades" - right - that's who they claim to be. And before when they claimed other terrorist attacks they had "the Islambouli Brigade of al-Qaida." But by the name it sounds like they're part of this bigger movement. They're not part of Mr. Maskhadov's group.
RAY SUAREZ: Is this a blow to President Vladimir Putin and his hard line against the Chechen separatist movement?
MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, first of all, it's a blow to Russia and the Russian people, let's not forget this, this is an incredible tragedy in a country that has had a lot of tragedy by terrorists in the recent period. And that's who I think of first and foremost.
Second, of course, though, this war is supposed to be over, the war on terrorism is supposed to be succeeding. I think their hesitation in part was because they didn't want to have another terrorist attack to answer for and to react to. And coming on the eve of presidential elections in Chechnya this Sunday, this was supposed to be a sign that we are in control of Chechnya, today or after these terrorist attacks, it doesn't look like they're really in control.
RAY SUAREZ: Lawrence Sheets, as far as the government is concerned, are those Chechen elections going to go forward without any hesitation or delay?
LAWRENCE SHEETS: There's no question that they're going to go forward. I think the fact is that not many people take these elections very seriously. There's only really one serious candidate - he's been backed by the Kremlin from the very beginning; he's had his picture taken repeatedly shown on television with President Putin, basically endorsed. These are not serious elections.
Any serious competition has been eliminated, no separatist-type candidates are running of course, they would be barred from running, and wouldn't take part anyway in what they say is a sham. And even moderate non-separatist Chechens who had tried to get on the ballot were kept off by technicalities.
This will go forward, I agree with Michael - I mean, that the objective is probably to make things look as normal as possible, but with an event like this today, of course, it's going to cast a pall over the election, I would think.
RAY SUAREZ: Does this does this change the equation politically in Russia for any of the main parties involved? There's been a lot of complaining coming from the Duma in the last couple of days about the government. But it seems to be also in a very secure position at the same time.
MICHAEL McFAUL: I don't think it changes anything immediately. Mr. Putin is still very popular, he just won re-election recently. The government will fall depending on what he says not what the public says.
But there is something happening in Russia today and that is that a gap, something changing in the opinion polls, and that is that the Russians don't support full-scale military action in Chechnya. In polls done by many people including myself, personally, by a two-to-one margin people say they want peaceful negotiations. They want a negotiation process to start in Chechnya.
That number used to be the reverse five years ago when the war started, when two-thirds supported war at all costs to regain Russian territorial integrity. That is something that Putin is going to have to deal with moving forward. And let's remember this has been five years now. This is not something that just happened recently.
RAY SUAREZ: Michael McFaul, Lawrence Sheets, gentlemen, thank you both.