Adjusting its stance, Russia strategizes for possibility of Metrojet terrorism

Russia stopped all flights to Egypt after the nation's security chief recommended it wait until investigators concluded what caused the breakup of a passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to discuss how the Russians are preparing for the possibility of terrorism and the potential ramifications for Egypt’s government.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And Margaret joins me now for more.

    Margaret, thank you for that report.

    So, what explains the shift in Russia's thinking? First, Putin is saying, no, we don't want to believe that this was an act of terror, but now they're suspending flights.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, Judy, Putin is one of the two leaders involved here who has the most to lose economically and — but mostly politically.

    One Russian said to me today, this isn't just a human question, a security question, but a deeply political one.

    So, he's in a dilemma, or he has felt in a dilemma, because here he is with this adventure into Syria, and in fact he was asked on Russian TV just within the last two weeks, does this put us at risk? He said absolutely not.

    So, if it does turn out it's a greater risk, that's a problem. Then, people close to the Kremlin told me also that, if that's the conclusion, he wants to be ready with a plan, sort of like George W. Bush after 9/11. So, the Ministry of Defense is working on a lot of contingency plans.

    And I'm told that there's a huge movement of Russian assault ships moving into the Eastern Mediterranean. That said, the Russians have investigators on the ground. The people they sent are from the FSB, which is essentially the KGB successor. They must have seen something that overnight made them to recommend to Putin that, you have got to protect Russian citizens.

    And, as somebody said to me, if he didn't and he didn't say anything and there were another attack, there would really be hell to pay.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Margaret, you have also got this discrepancy with the Egyptians not wanting to believe that there was a bomb, that there was terror involved, but you have got European countries saying something different, saying they have reason to think there may well have been.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes.

    And, in fact, there were reports from France today — they're unsourced — that the French investigators — the only investigators on the ground, Judy, are the Russians, the Egyptians and the French. Like, the U.S. is not there.

    So — but the French have come to that conclusion, but that's sourced reports. So, for President El-Sisi, there is so much at stake. First of all, what a blow to their last remaining tourism industry. I mean, Sharm el-Sheikh was really it at this point.

    But, secondly, he won election after taking power in what many consider a coup saying, I am the general. I can protect us from terrorism.

    And, in fact, terrorism has increased. He keeps saying and asserting, we have control over Sinai. Well, they don't. Jihadist groups are much more active there than they were. And one of them declared leadership to the Islamic State.

    So they're really in a bind. They insist — and I talked to an Egyptian, someone close to the government today, who said it really isn't definitive information, but, you know, also, he will pay a huge political price. Yet, I'm told there is a recognition on the part of that government that, if they wait too long, and the whole rest of the world has come to a conclusion, they will look like they're hiding something.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, meantime, you also have daylight between what the Brits are saying — the British are saying and what the U.S. — the British are saying, well, we think there is likely reason to believe it was a bomb.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The U.S. is saying, no, we're not ready to make that declaration.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    To me, Judy, that was in a way the most fascinating sort of conundrum, because I'm told the U.S. and the British are looking at the exact same set of intelligence.

    It clearly points to a bomb, but the British — Prime Minister Cameron, I'm told, felt under — you know, they had to move quickly to save or protect British citizens. They have got 20,000 there, as we have reported frequently. The U.S. has essentially none.

    They have direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. The U.S. has none — and that Cameron felt, if he's going to suspend all flights both directions, he had to have — do it with some transparency, and that that was what led them to say what they said.

    That said, a U.S. official told me just minutes ago that it did come as a surprise to Washington yesterday when he did this, but that there wasn't tension over this. And the U.S. just feels that it's got no investigators on the ground. It and the Brits are looking more at overhead intelligence, signals intelligence, as we reported, and that they don't — the U.S. feels it doesn't need to jump the gun. It doesn't need to assert that it's got these investigators on the ground, and, frankly, undercut Egypt completely, that they're just going to wait and let it ripen a little more.

    And, really, 15 minutes ago, I was told, somebody said to me, "From what I have seen, we still can't be entirely sure."

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Margaret Warner, following the story of the plane crash very closely, we thank you.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    A pleasure, Judy, as always.

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