November 28, 2006

Aleksander Litvinenko and Tsar Vladimir

A few people who have written about the poisoning death of Aleksander Litvinenko hold the view that since no shred of tangible evidence ... no smoking gun or trail of blood ... leads to the Kremlin door, any insinuation directed at Vladimir Putin is pushing the envelope or paranoid at worst.

While I would refrain from joining the "he dun it" chorus, enough circumstantial collateral has accrued since Putin took power to make suspicions very far from mere supposition. There is in fact very good reason to suspect the hand of the Kremlin in many of these bizarre deaths - and by "hand" I'm not inferring direct action by the way, as in "hi this is Putin, go whack L!". A wink or a nod might be all that was required to set the ball rolling, while leaving no track-back to any occupant of higher office. And the head that was nodded didn't necessarily have to be Putin's. There might well have been four, five or even six heads nodding down the line, before Sergei Poloniumevski put on his black leather jacket and called his friend the chemist. But to argue without nuance that Putin is off-the-hook - a victim of ill-placed suspicion in the deaths of regime opponents over the past few years, is to risk coming off as extremely naive. There might a 1,000 to 1 chance that he is pure as riven snow, but I'll save my money for the horse races.

In a post beneath I touched on what we do know about Tsar Vlad. We know he has muzzled the press. We also know he has made sweeping legislative changes geared toward centralizing power in the Kremlin (although some of this may indeed have been forced on him by circumstances). We know he used underhanded tactics and a dodgy court to nail Yukos and other players to the wall. We know he dislikes foreign NGO's and seems to feel threatened by any organization within his domain that he can't control. Being an ex-KGB Lt Colonel, he doubtless feels uneasy about potential spies functioning under the cover of foreign operations, and doubtless the man has very good reason to feel concerned. I completely empathize.

The psychological profile that emerges from all we do know about Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, is not one that inspires confidence when it comes to democratic behaviors such as freedom of speech and cultural diversity. Vlad is not cool, despite his elfin features and boy scout smile. He keeps his friends close and his enemies closer, in ways they might prefer he didn't. His rise to power effectively places a KGB-derived culture and mentality in the saddle. Along with that comes all the fun and games these guys are past masters at playing. Anyone who imagines that a wolf can morph into a sheep by play-acting at democracy, needs to look more closely at what has been going in Russia over the past few years. It's very clear Putin still holds old allegiances and old ambitions, that have merely been re-modeled to meet current challenges and opportunities. He also has oil and that can give a man a 007 complex, including the license that goes with the number.

Of course none of this makes him directly responsible for the killing of Litvinenko. I am certain a lot goes on in the name of the Russian state, many bumps in the night, that Putin knows little about. Even in the case of murdered dissidents, businessmen and journalists, it is stretching it to believe that Putin was instrumental in each case. Why implicate himself in matters that take care of themselves? The institutional outrage toward those who fall foul of the golden boy's good graces, coupled with an in-built climate of permission, simply results in things happening. Does this mean that Putin at all times kept a sanitized distance from all of this? Again we don't know, but my hunch is no. However when you are head honcho of a huge system that does in fact keep some pretty shady customers on the pay roll, and you are viewed by many as the shining symbol of the new Russia, a tweak of the pinky could well be all that is required for funny stuff to happen.

Many of the Tsars of old were very clever at remaining above the dirty work, not hard when you have a reliable hierarchy of underlings (and Putin has worked hard at maintaining his connections). It's sort of a venerable Russian tradition. As the victims keel over, the head man maintains the necessary sang-froid and stays above the unpleasantness. Stalin was good at that. He never broke a sweat, even when he refused to deal with the Germans in WW2 to obtain the release of his own son. He was even heard to remark "I have no son".

Power in Russia has traditionally been exercised with an iron fist. Weak leaders like Nicholas, who made bad decisions and seemed frozen in aspic when action was required, got swept away. Of course the times and changing realities made the odds against Nicholas succeeding pretty steep, but it's interesting that the man who stepped into the power vacuum created by his weakness was someone who could have been the reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible - Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin.

A tradition of nastiness-in-high-places has always been characteristic of Russian power politics, and it doesn't show much sign of changing. There are many well documented cases of KGB ( now FSB) attempts to snuff out real and perceived enemies. In 2004 for example Russian agents murdered the President of Chechnya, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. They staged a car bomb attack in Qatr where Yandarbiyev was then living in exile.

Omar ibn-Khattab, another Chechan leader was poisoned by Russian agents in 2002. They sent the goods via a letter.

The Russians aren't shy about doing this stuff on the world stage either. KGB operatives well understood that they could be as brazen as they liked with assassinations, so long as care was taken to leave no evidence that could be tracked back. European governments have a vested interest in maintaining good relations with Russia, so there is a lot of latitude. An agent pretty much has to be nabbed standing over a victim syringe-in-hand, before charges will be countenanced. In 1978 the KGB knocked off the Bulgarian anti-communist broadcaster, Georgi Markov, by firing poison from a specially rigged umbrella. Also a London hit. No evidence of shyness there.

More recently in 2004 , a British lawyer named Stephen Curtis, died in a helicopter crash in March of that year near Bournemouth. It so happened that Curtis was at the center of a smear campaign directed at Vladimir Putin and key associates. Shortly before his untimely demise he was the subject of threats, and went so far as to warn a relative that "if anything happens, it won't be an accident".

The poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko with dioxine demonstrates this cavalier attitude. Of course I'm sure that there are people who believe Putin had nothing to with that either, and officially of course he didn't, just as he had nothing to do with the poisoning of Litvinenko. That's the whole idea, and I'm sure he's thrilled to know that he has supporters in the West who think he is being framed. I mean how good can it get? Well, it might get even better. I don't rule out the possibility that a suspect will be fingered with connections that have no links whatever to the Kremlin. Fall guys are easy to come by in the espionage game.

Anna Politkovskaya wasn't the only victim at Novaya Gazeta. Before her murder, another journalist named Yuri Shchekochikhin was killed with poison. Like Anna, he also was looking into corruption in high places.

In the Litvinenko case, as with most others, there is no hard evidence pointing back to the chief resident of the Kremlin. However some people haven't been reticent about speaking up, and not just unconnected bloggers firing off opinions from the sidelines. The most senior KGB agent ever to defect to the UK, one Oleg Gordievsky, is adamant that the hit was state-sponsored. Gordievsky even claims he knows who did it, and that the assassin was recruited from a prison by the FSB. The other point Gordievsky makes, is that the poison and method of administration was extremely sophisticated - not some bumbling hood with rat poison.

Litvinenko was basically nuked. The poison used was polonium 210, a by-product of uranium, not exactly the type of substance a random bunch of above-mentioned rogues would have easy access to. P-210 is an isotope of polonium, a so-called alpha emitter. A milligram emits as many alpha particles as 5 grams of radium, so this gives some idea of its potency. This is a substance that has to be administered with the precision of a scientist, and clearly whoever poisoned Litvinenko knew precisely the amount to use. Any mistake and the victim could have died on the spot leading of course to public alarm and possible arrest.

As with Yushchenko the victim became a public spectacle. Both men lost hair and appeared on camera in a weakened and unflattering condition. Someone with a sick turn-of-mind, could be excused for thinking that the people behind the poisoning wanted a laugh - wanted to be able to watch their little game play itself out on television, to further enjoy the suffering of their adversaries. But of course that is ridiculously over-the-top.

No wonder Boris Berezovsky has iron-clad security. He knows what is going on in his former homeland and has been overhead using the word "bandits" in reference to Putin and his associates. Of course Boris is no saint, but maybe that's why he knows how these guys operate. One thing he won't be doing anytime soon is dining out on sushi.

About the Author

Aidan Maconachy is a freelance writer and artist based in Ontario. He has a political blog named - aidan maconachy blog - at

1 comment:

  1. The timing of this was not good for Putin. Thus if he did then it is either

    a) Stupid
    b) Smart, as he reasoned that no one would think he was so Stupid to do it at this time
    c) Others to make him LOOK BAD

    I will play an expert and say it is C. :-)