Below, blogger Mike Woodson of TPM Cafe critiques the analysis of Dmitri Simes regarding the Litvinenko killing. Simes has written (in early December) that the only explanation for Kremlin involvement in the Livinenko killing that he could accept would be if Litvinenko had been giving direct assistance to the Chechen rebels, and urges us to explore that topic further (read Simes’ analysis at Woodson’s link). Woodson argues that there are plenty of other explanations for Kremlin involvement, including a number of fascinating revelations about prior Kremlin assasination attempts.
Over at the Nixon Center’s National Interest online, Prof. Dimitry Simes wrote an analysis of the Litvinenko case entitled, “Litvinenko: Kremlin Conspiracy or Blofeld Set-Up?”
The analysis centered on some very important points about the shady backgrounds of the involved parties, however, missed some reality checks arising from evidence not just in Litvinenko’s case, but from the larger context, including that of a radiologic weapon incident. Among these realities: (1) Putin’s plausible deniability defeats itself; (2) poisoning of Putin’s former contract bodyguard and its implications; (3) likelihood that assassins were compartmentalized from information on the nature of their weapon so as to destroy them as witnesses while Kremlin stalls; (4) heavy conflicts of interest in Kremlin “investigations” including the Yukos diversion; (5) Litvinenko and the Chechen angle; (6) the evidence of increasingly aggressive, neo-Soviet Cold War behaviors in several venues, including murder in the U.K.; and (7) how Kremlin efforts at discrediting Litvinenko work against its avoidance of responsibility.
A good international relationship with Russia is key, however, it does not improve by not dealing with serious issues quickly and completely. The US nor the Russian Federation are as threatened by Islamic extremism that this incident should be buried to fight-off an emergent common enemy as happened in backing Stalin versus Hitler. This incident has to be carefully vetted for truth or else the misuse of weaponized radiation will have been glossed over.
1. Plausible Deniability
The very argument, echoed by Prof. Simes and others, that it would be illogically risky for Mr. Putin to approve of the use of Polonium-210 against Litvinenko in the U.K. is what increases the likelihood that he could get away with it. As such, the argument defeats itself. It also overlooks something about today’s cadre of KGB veterans ruling Russia: they survived the gangster wars of the 90’s not by chess-like calculation alone, but by brutality and risk-taking.
2. The Alleged Radiation Poisoning of Roman Tsepov
According to the December 31st Sunday Times report, Moscow prosecutors are investigating the similarities between the radiation poisoning death 2-years ago of Roman Tsepov, Vladimir V. Putin’s former contract bodyguard, and Alexander Litvinenko’s November 2006 murder. The Moscow Prosecutor General’s office stresses Tsepov’s intervention in Yukos business affairs after working for Putin when Putin was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg.
However, there is a problem with plausible deniability if two years ago Mr. Putin’s former bodyguard was murdered with Polonium-210 or another highly radioactive substance, dying like Mr. Litvinenko. It would have put the Russian Federation government on alert that its nuclear materials were not secure, and would make the 2006 theft of Polonium-210 without a Putin operative detecting it, highly unlikely. It also seems it would have led to a particularly aggressive all-agency investigation which would have resulted in the arrest of the assassin of Mr. Tsepov, and the conspirators.
The sort of animosity one would expect from one using Polonium-210 to send an excruciatingly painful message of horrific killing power and reach, would be from a person with much to lose by revelations from dossiers one is not sure exist, but which could politically destroy him. The level of paranoia possible in a country with tens of thousands of former secret service people and informants for hire should not be underestimated in its power to motivate pre-emptive assassination of someone known to be pursuing information or footage one is not sure exists.
There is one back-burner motive to consider for Tsepov’s murder, and possibly Litvinenko’s. Many Western press outlets have joked about an incident caught on video in which Mr. Putin strokes, lifts the shirt of, and kisses a young boy’s stomach in public, later explaining it as the same as wanting to stroke a kitten. However, to a regime that has commandeered the leadership of a too-willing Moscow Patriarchate in nearly every aspect of government ministry to secure Russian popular support through the Church, the taped incident plus Alexander Litvinenko’s averred kompromat that Putin was known by his KGB superiors to have problems with underage boys, could destroy Putin’s public image on which both he and the Patriarch Alexei II have worked so hard to build. I don’t know if these allegations are true, but to utterly ignore them and the clip would seem to be negligent for the sake of avoiding taboo subjects. For the record, I sure hope the kompromat is false. It’s very creepy.
3. Likelihood Litvinenko Assassins Compartmentalized from Putin
The real and feigned ignorance of likely Litvinenko poisoner(s) Dmitri Kovtun and or Andrei Lugovoi is likely a sign of their compartmentalization from their supplier of the Polonium-210 used to murder Litvinenko. How many distancing compartments there were could only be investigated objectively in Russia by non-Russian investigators with full power to enforce subpoenas and orders for complex medical examination.
It is likely that the poisoner was deceived about the true nature of what he was carrying, thinking it to be another poison with a trail leading back to Moscow. Ignorance would be consistent with an operation that could wipe out all of the proximate witnesses even while the Kremlin slowed matters down by insisting on its own participation (interevention?) in the investigation, rather than cooperation with that of the British. Also, ignorance about the substance is consistent with the apparent sloppiness in handling the radioactive substance by the poisoners.
Why would Putin risk a trail of the substance leading to Moscow? Only if it was deniable enough that the link was not to him, but to his enemies, might he risk it. Why? To throw off the building scrutiny on him as to so many other murders, PR woes and the authoritarian issue; to be able to blame it all on his enemies who would go so far as to frame him for murdering Litvinenko.
However, the capability of Putin’s enemies obtaining Polonium-210 should also be investigated. This would require opening Russian nuclear security procedures, it seems. The Kremlin enemy theory has to be investigated in combination with their capability and motive to frame Putin. However, I find it strange that if there is so much jockeying to replace Putin, the Kremlin would so quickly settle on its beaten enemies, the Yukos executives, as suspects in Litvinenko’s death.
The unnecessarily expensive and risky method of using 10 million USD of Polonium-210 to kill someone seems a veiled message that a government’s resources stand ready to kill anyone else who may try to compromise that regime. The painful, slow death it brings makes it also a weapon expressing a deep, yet sophisticated animosity.
4. Heavy Conflicts of Interest in Kremlin Investigation
Scotland Yard detectives seeking audiences with Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun discovered quickly that no audiences would be allowed with the men without Russian authorities present. Also, access to the men has been controlled while Russian authorities have insisted on control over the Russian investigation.
In addition, the Moscow Prosecutor General kicked off his office’s involvement by advocating in defense of the Kremlin before adducing any evidence at all. And now that office seeks to go into an area in which it has had much experience, namely, the prosecution of Yukos executives. This was a prosecution in which the Kremlin had an immense interest, considering that it would enable the nationalization of Yukos through state-owned Gazrprom, and cut-off free-market associations through Sibneft. The Kremlin’s interest in the Yukos prosecutions was so heavy that the Prosecutor General’s shift in suspicion toward former Yukos executives in the Litvinenko case is predictable. It would be one more step in playing enemies off against each other while washing the Kremlin’s hands. Is that what is happening? I don’t know.
One thing is certain. By November 2006, Vladimir V. Putin’s Administration, his own personal future and fortune, and his “partners” had more to lose than Yukos executives who had already lost Yukos to nationalization, fled the country or who now live in prison cells.
The conflicts of interest have a history in the many dampened investigations to find the murderers of the many critical businesspersons, journalists and dissidents of the Putin regime whose bodies have piled up in morgues.
Regarding these murders, who can prosecute a government? And does a government with so many resources, deserve the same burden of proof that an individual would receive if accused of murder? Here is where determinations for policy reasons and for prosecution purposes should diverge. An individual natural person normally does not have the resources to match a government, and that is why proof beyond a reasonable doubt for guilt is a must. With a government or its agent, the burden should be lesser, or it should carry a burden of disproof to some degree.
5. Litvinenko and the Chechen Angle
Much has been made by the Kremlin and its “partners” of Alexander Litvinenko’s alleged deathbed conversion to Islam, his ties to Chechens, and the possibility that Litvinenko may have been trying to supply the Chechens with dirty bomb materials. The Chechen angle plays well with the Russian public, however, a question that remains unanswered is whether Litvinenko’s knowledge, alleged in his book “Blowing Up Russia,” that the FSB blew-up Russians to justify a war against Chechnya, is what drove him to sympathize with Chechens and seek protection under Berezovsky.
If Litvinenko didn’t believe this to be true, why would he have risked writing the book when he could have simply earned pay as a Berezovsky body guard and kept a low profile?
Before assuming that Litvinenko was in bad faith toward Russia, it should be determined whether what he put in his book was true. Also, it would be wise to try to determine whether Litvinenko believed it, even if it were later determined not to be true. If true, Litvinenko’s allegations would imply that countless innocent Russians and Chechens, both civilians and soldiers, had died needlessly for the sake of sending a violent message to other Republics considering further breaks from Russia’s Federation and alliance with the EU or the US.
Finally, it is harder for Russian FSB to infiltrate the Chechen underground than it is for them to compromise other organized underground groups. That is why for people like Litvinenko and Berezovsky, who had already become a Kremlin target, there would be more safety with the Chechens. However, corrupt Berezovsky may be, it has to be considered whether Litvinenko was fooled not only by the oligarch, but killed in a war between the oligarch and Putin in which there was no right side, but he believed he was on the best side.
6. Increasing Signs of Aggressive Neo-Soviet Cold War Behavior
According to an in-depth report by Neil Mackay of the Sunday Herald (Scotland), an unnamed British counter-intelligence learned of a botched hit by a Russian intelligence operative on Judge Timothy Workman. The assassin shot Lt. Col. Robert Workman, an 83-year old British citizen who lived near Judge Workman. The Putin regime had been enraged by the denial of its requests to extradite both Boris Berezovsky and Chechan rebel Akhmed Zakayev from the United Kingdom, accusing the UK judge of “playing cold war politics.”Here is an earlier press report of that incident. No doubt the Kremlin will claim that it was framed yet again by the grand conspiracy (presumably in the entire West) to bring Putin down. Are we seeing a pattern of strikes on those deemed insignificant by the Kremlin, to send messages to those with whom it has directly tangled? Was Politkovskaya a message to Litvinenko? And then Litvinenko a message to Berezovsky and all other exiled former FSB/KGB?
Additionally, the Putin regime’s refusal to allow extradition of Russian citizens suspected in murders on the UK’s soil seems to reveal a Cold War retaliatory policy. It seems aimed at intimidating the UK into cooperating with Putin’s assertion of control over London’s Russian emigre population. The implied threat: that a confrontation between the Kremlin by the U.K. could lead to retaliatory economic moves within Europe and on oil, gas and G8 commercial arrangements.
One cannot ignore the evidence of Russian intelligence spying on US command areas leading up to the invasion of Iraq, or the assistance of Saddam Hussein’s regime in a way that could have ended in the death of American troops during the invasion. Some reports even suggested that it was Russian spetznatz that helped secret away so many of the Hussein munitions beyond the Syrian border that is being used to blow up 60 and 70 people at a time in Baghdad.
Something less evident to the Russian people about their government’s foreign policies of nostalgic USSR-like ascendancy abroad, has been its repeat of USSR-like neglect of the people’s health and survival needs at home in the process. According to Rand and US Library of Congress studies, declining investment in health care and hospital rebuilding has remained the status quo during Yeltsin’s and Putin’s terms. Only just this year Putin announced a plan to spend heavily on heath care. It is a late amendment.
How much of the money otherwise expendable on health care has been spent on the wars in Chechnya, refugee management, or on central control policies to reel in current and former republics? And how much money supplies the reputedly high budget of the FSB, it’s director seen here with Patriarch Alexei II at the founding of a joint-venture MP chapel in the FSB’s (formerly KGB) Lubyanka HQ?
The Russian medical profession has among the highest talent treasury and potentials in the world. There is nothing wrong with the Russian intellect. However, saddled beneath a top-heavy, inefficient and corrupt Soviet regression, it cannot easily get up and realize its potential and save Russian lives.
7. Kremlin Tactics of Discrediting Dissidents Backfires
The talking points on Litvinenko have not only emphasized his conversion to Islam, they also emphasized his unimportance and insignificance, much like Putin’s language about Anna Politkovskaya: “insignificant.”
The Kremlin controlled press has also mentioned, and even Russian emigres I know have mentioned that Litvinenko was merely a prison guard who made it into the FSB anti-corruption branch. He was never a spy, they argue, and therefore seek to discredit western presses who refer to him as an ex-spy. Professor Simes also repeated this technical spycraft error about Litvinenko in the Western press to suggest that it was “frenzied.” I am not so sure heavy press action on a nuclear terror incident story in a NATO country is rightfully called a frenzy, or that it is invalid for small technical errors. It is rather the press doing its job to help protect the public. Perhaps that wasn’t always the emphasis of the “realist” perspective of Nixonian foreign policy, and it certainly is not Putin’s priority, since he has a former Vympel assassin, Vladimir Kozlov, running his Media ministry anyway.
The realist line goes: why would the Kremlin, with so much important business at stake, harm such insignificant people as these?
However, if Litvinenko was so insignificant, why would anyone kill him? The Kremlin has pointed at Berezovsky also. Why would Berezovsky kill him if it would involve too much risk for someone too insignificant for others to believe as a legitimate target for the Kremlin?
Also, why would Litvinenko be insignificant if as the Kremlin has alleged, he was running radioactive materials to the Chechens to use in a bomb? Can you have it both ways? He is not an insignificant threat, but then he is?
The case is not just about an emotionalized story of one man dying of radiation poisoning, or whether he was worthy of life or death. The case is also about whether a regime that allows the loose use of radioactive materials as weapons in and against the interests of NATO countries should be brought to the mat with a concerted world effort aimed at its international accountability. Perhaps the Western nations should have thought of this before granting the Kremlin so much clout in the G8 or with WTO status.
I am not saying that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered Alexander Litvinenko’s murder, or even an attempt on Judge Timothy Workman, killing instead an innocent elderly man. However, it is more than possible, and even in the realm of probability that he did. We should not rule it out, in part for the reasons stated above.
And, I do not think that proof needs to rise to the beyond a reasonable doubt standard to prove a government’s involvement and proceed politically with a firm, measured, long-range adjustment in policy toward that country, whether written or unwritten.
The Russian Federation government of Vladimir Putin is not itself Russia, does not represent the character of the great plurality of Russians, and owes an immense debt to the Russian people for being loyal to a regime that has treated the bulk of Russians like expendable pawns in a game of USSR-reloaded.