May 01, 2024

Russians Forced to Become Arsonists


Russians Forced to Become Arsonists
Lit Molotov cocktail ready to be thrown. Ministerie van Defensie, Wikimedia Commons.

Since the outbreak of Russia's full-blown War on Ukraine, many Russians have turned to radical protests, hurling Molotov cocktails at government buildings and military commissariats. Among those engaged in such acts are minor schoolchildren and former law enforcement officers.

However, in certain instances, Molotov cocktails are not thrown by protesters but by isolated elderly individuals influenced by telephone scammers who have conned their victims out of money and sometimes shelter.

According to estimates by the independent online publication Kholod (The Cold), at least 51 people have fallen prey to such scams, including 33 elderly persons. Subsequently, the arsonists are subject to prosecution, at times facing severe criminal charges such as terrorism, carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment. 

A journalist from Kholod interviewed one of the victims of the telephone scams, 61-year-old Galina Rybkina, who attempted to set fire to a branch of Sberbank, one of Russia's largest banks. 

The resident of a small town near the Black Sea, Rybkina received a call in December 2022 from an individual claiming to be from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The caller alleged that the police apprehended a fraudster attempting to secure a loan in her name. Subsequently, Rybkina was contacted by scammers who pretended to be investigators and a Central Bank employee. They instructed Rybkina to preempt the scammers by obtaining a loan herself and transferring money to a “secure” account.

After procuring loans, she was coerced by the criminals into assisting in identifying scammers within real estate agencies. This necessitated selling her two apartments at drastically reduced prices and transferring the funds to the same purportedly secure account.

Consequently, Rybkina was forced to relocate to a hotel. Despite the situation, she was optimistic. She believed the imaginary criminals would be apprehended and her property and funds returned. Instead, the pensioner received a new task: to set fire to a Sberbank branch. Allegedly, it was controlled by scammers they were trying to catch, and the pensioner needed to create a little chaos with the help of brilliant green and a Molotov cocktail. To make a flammable liquid, she was even sent instructions in Ukrainian.

Rybkina meticulously followed the instructions and proceeded to the Sberbank branch. However she was apprehended by a security guard before employing the Molotov cocktail, caught in the act of spraying green paint and exclaiming “Department DSU” (“The DSU Department”). The pensioner doesn’t know what this means, but the scammers probably asked her to shout “Slava ZSU” (“Glory to Armed Forces of Ukraine”) which she did not hear clearly; in other cases, victims of the scammers have shouted pro-Ukrainian slogans.

As a result of what happened, a criminal case was opened against Rybkina under the article of attempted damage to another person’s property. She was lucky and did not receive a real sentence, unlike other victims of scammers. Rybkina was given a two-year suspended sentence, but now has nowhere to live, has debts to the bank, and feels like an outcast in her homestown. Telephone scammers went unpunished. Who exactly is behind them is unknown.

According to the FSB, Ukrainian special services have been implicated in such cases. This assertion is bolstered by instances where the fraudsters instructed their victims to set fire to military registration and enlistment offices. Yet certain details in arson cases suggest provocation by the FSB.

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