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Sunday 26 November 2006

Who killed Litvinenko? [Lurks]

I think we've all been watching the remarkable developments concerning the poisoning of ex-ruskie-spook Alexander Litvinenko. I thought it might be useful to step back and take a quick overview of this chap, some recent history, and see if I can't fathom out of it a most likely scenario for who was responsible.
A good place to start here is with Boris Berezovsky who is widely described as Russia's first billionaire. This chap first surfaced as a Russian business man under perestroika. Under Yeltzin's presidency, he started building his empire with some shading dealings with state car manufacturer AutoVAZ. I'm no expert but near as I can tell as Russia threw off the mantle of communism, pretty much all of the "emerging oligarchs made their fortunes in the shady lawless space between a government defining capitalist concepts for the first time and the rise of organised crime.
Berezovsky had a bunch of connections to Chechnya and like any other Russian oligarch, got to where he was by supporting the current presidential regime (he was very tight with Yeltzin and having aquired numerous media interest, helped his cause considerably) in exchange for being the recipient of all sorts of deals in the emerging market. Berezovsky is, today, quite dimly viewed by Russians as an oligarch that basically defrauded the Russian state in those early years. Interestingly in later years Berezovsky supported Putin's presidency but was vehemently against war in Chechnya.
I'm having a headache straightening that out form the main meat that probably lead up to current events, but let's just put it down to me not understanding the Machiavellian politics of Russian business, crime and government. See, back in 1998 good old ex-KGB Vladimir Putin was head of the FSB, the reformed Russian secret police/security organisation. This is when FSB Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Litvinenko popped up on the public radar for the first time by informing Berezovsky and some figures within the Yeltzin administration of a plot to assassinate Berezovsky.
This launched an official investigation and meanwhile Berezovsky wrote an open letter to Putin, head of the FSB as you'll recall, in the Russian newspapers claiming that various members of the FSB were engaged in all sorts of illegal activities including kidnapping and extortion and that further more these activities had a political component. What he basically said was the old guard KGB chaps are up to their old tricks. Apparently in support of this, a new conference was held with ex FSB members claiming they had been ordered to kill Berezovsky. Putin replied to the open-letter saying that he doesn't want to play political games with the agency but they will cooperate fully with the military prosecutors investigating the allegations.
What's kind of being missed by the obituaries on Litvinenko lately is the fact that he was well known to be 'close' to Berezovsky, which I find as a somewhat strange position for an anti organised crime investigations officers to be in. That does make it rather unlikely he'd be asked to assassinate Berezovsky, as some Russian media pointed out (citing FSB sources) at the time. Conversely Litvinenko claimed that after he refused to whack Berezovsky, he was threatened by other elements for having protected "a Jew who has robbed half the country."
It's really not clear what was going on but some kind of internal power struggle within the FSB seems quite likely. You might have written it off as a political game from the Berezovsky camp (with Litvinenko as an insider) were it not for the group of former FSB officers coming out of the dark and supporting the accusations.
Remarkably, the result of investigation was purely to close down the anti organised crime section of the FSB and, despite the fact that Putin resided as head over the organisation during this scandalous time, campaigned in 2000 for the Presidency (supported by Berezovsky!) and won. Russia is a very strange place.
That said, Berezovsky pushed it a bit far with his opposition to events in Chechnya and Putin initiated investigations into his business practices. Fearing arrest, and all that entails in Russia, he fled and has been a resident of the UK ever since. Back onto our main subject, Alexander Litvinenko was arrested for abusing his office and spent 9 months incarcerated before finally being let go without charge.
Rather than leaving it there he continued to make a nuisance of himself to the Putin regime by publishing a book that the FSB was responsible for the residential block bombing in 1999 that killed 300 people, blamed on the Chechens and generally regarded as swinging public opinion into supporting the war in Chechnya. This strikes me as the work of either a very brave or very stupid man. At some point, however, he claims he was persecuted (and other sources claim another FSB corruption case was being prepared against him) and so he fled to the UK successfully seeking asylum. The BBC claims in their obituary that he acted like a pursued spy ever since.
Forgive me for the length of the background, clearly more recent events are rather better known. We know, for example that another critical of Chechnya policy and the Putin regime in general, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in the lift of her apartment. What may be less well known is that she spoke to Litvinenko in London shortly after she was poison. Litvinenko claimed subsequently to be investigating the murder of Politkovskaya although her son said he knew nothing about this.
Quite tellingly, Litvinenko told a Chechen web site that the documents he received from a contact on the 1st of November contained information about FSB involvement in the killing of Politkovskaya. Which is interesting. In fact on the day it's thought that he was poisoned, Litvinenko met two people. Firstly Andrei Lugovoy and another unnamed Russian at the xxx and then, arranged hastily, apparently, the Italian Professor Mario Scaramella.
Andrew Lugovoy was a former KGB officer and FSB colleague of Litvinenko who now is a security employee of a Russian television station (formerly owned by Berezovsky, interestingly). I can find no details about what that meeting was for but lunch, at the Sushi bar, was accordingly to Litvinenko to discuss the Politkovskaya murder. Perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that Scaramella said, having returned to Rome, that he had traveled to meet Litvinenko to discuss an e-mail he received from a source naming the killers of Politkovskaya and discussing his and Litvinenko's appearance on a hit-list.
This is quite remarkable but check it Litvinenko's version of events:

"I ordered lunch but he ate nothing. He appeared to be very nervous. He handed me a four-page document which he said he wanted me to read right away. It contained a list of names of people, including FSB officers, who were purported to be connected with the journalist’s murder."
"The document was an e-mail but it was not an official document. I couldn’t understand why he had to come all the way to London to give it to me. He could have e-mailed it to me."

That's a good point. Why would you come to London to give someone an email print out? This strikes me as remarkable smoking-gun type material to me. If any agency wanted to whack Litvinenko, they first have to track him down and the BBC would have us believe he didn't make that easy. What better way to entice Litvinenko to a meeting than to use a honey pot subject that he would find too juicy to pass up such as FSB involvement in the Politkovskaya murder.
You've got to take a step back though. It's all a little too obvious. Anyone could see how doing something like this would end up providing a horrendous anti-Russia platform and one which, as you can see, has been exploited to the full. Incidentally Berezovsky is thought to have been footing the $10,000 a day PR bill and I think some over-eagerness in that department is the reason for the rapid-fire erroneous reports of thalium, not thalium, coctail of drugs no wait, radioactive thalium before ending up with a diagnosis. What we've got here is PR bunnies pressing medical professionals as they tick of things it might be and the media, ever hungry for news, has been publishing the speculation as it goes on.
The overwhelming scenario would seem to support an FSB-based plot, the only question is whether you believe that the Putin regime could make a miscalculation on this scale. I would urge you to look back at the history. Putin is a former member of the KGB, former head of the FSB when it was torn apart by the most damaging scandal imaginable and this is a man which has repeatedly demonstrated his hand in dealing with foreign PR problems in the form of businessmen by instructing enforcement agencies to investigate said individuals. Then, finally, there's Politkovskaya. A failed poisoning and the brutal murder. Does anyone, really, doubt that was the hand of Putin?
If you believe, as the late Litvinenko would have us believe, that the FSB would bomb a block of flats in order to blame it on Chechens and seal support for his aggressive policy, then really this is hardly a moral stretch for a man capable of such things? One thing is very clear, you don't kill a man in this way via a highly elaborate slow-killing way like this, a way that can never be mistaken for the work of common thugs, unless you're sending a message.
Who might that message be for? If I was forced to speculate, I'd say Berezovsky. Litvinenko was his pet project from the start and he continued to be so, exploited as an anti Russia PR opportunity, as Litvinenko lay on his death bed. He paid Litvinenko's keep in London and co-authored an anti-FSB book and they clearly share the same sort of views when it comes to opposing Russia's Chechnya policy. Berezovsky might be too big a fish to openly try to whack, particularly since it had a previous plot exposed.
So if you can't get rid of Berezovsky, what about striking at his pet project FSB whistle-blower in a public unmistakably state-sponsored way such as this? It has a ring of plausibility for me, requiring you only to ignore the remarkable PR own goal and believing that Russia would have the sheer chutzpah to strike at a dissident on British soil. I'd put it to you that Russia is probably quite pissed off with our little collection of former state-raping oligarchs and anti-Putin activists so such a message might not be aimed at Berezovsky exclusively. I would expect it has a few former Russian nationals feeling a little hot under the collar so it may have had it's desired effect.
On the other hand, I find another telling comment from former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin who himself has fled the Russia and acts as a security consultant. His take is that Russian secret services have been given 'cart blanche' instructions allowing them to fight terrorism abroad through recent legal changes. Oleg says that the special units to fight terrorism abroad are tied up in an FSB 'caste' which hate traitors and hence decided to shut Litvinenko up.
This does, in many ways, make more sense. Russia incensed by terrorist atrocities has basically given their security forces a free reign and given the, ah, previous proclivities of their staff, this could be seen as a strategic move to erode support for the Chechen cause. Suitably devolved from the political process, such factions may not quite have the political comprehension to think this one through adequately.
For all Putin's faults I don't think the man is really stupid enough to go ahead and sign off on this sort of thing by his own hand. However as a former old-school KGB and FSB man himself, he'll understand only too well that oft-quoted concept of plausible deniability. Use the public's outrage (or manufacture it, if you're feeling particular sinister) to bring in the laws allowing the security forces to act as they will with an appropriate insulating chain of command which absolves you of specifically micro managing their efforts. This is the scenario that ultimately is where I'm placing my chips of likelihood.
Putin may not have signed the order but you can be damn sure he's not mourning the death of Alexander Litvinenko and is reasonably content that this is unlikely to come back and bite him on the ass longer term.


  1. Lurk - a bit OT, But where the hell do you get your information! I clearly need a sub to that magazine/paper/website [all of above]! You have more background on the bloke than the bloody FSB have!
    As we are here, how the hell do you remember it all :)

  2. I drew together about a dozen different sources all on the web. I should have linked them really but I had a lot of them open and it seemed a distraction. I was just fascinated by this development and wanted to really understand what was going on and I found most of the press to be cursory at best. The more I looked, the more it became really interesting. I didn't so much remember it all as set about trying to tell the background of it chronologically by stepping through bits of information. You can see that because there's xxx up there where I meant to fill in the name of the London hotel. :-)
    Interesting, the press yesterday picked up the thread in my conclusion here that this is tied up with the FSB being given a green light to kill abroad in the interests of combatting terrorism. Here's the BBC story. Now up to this point I assumed that the FSB was just being a little overzealous about what constitutes terrorism however what's probably the final peice of the puzzle is what the Russians define, according to the new laws passed in July, as being an extremist:

    "those slandering the individual occupying the post of president of the Russian Federation"

    It's been illegal in Russia to slander the president since 1990 and we're talking jail time here. Also even satircal sites have been shut down in a way oft criticised in the West but this appears go way beyond that into truly frightening territory. With the changes this year, it could be construed that slandering the President of Russia makes you an extremist and the security forces have been given specific right to assassinate extremists abroad.
    I'm now looking at this blog fairly uncomfortably... Just as well Putin is a really cool dude! Yay Putin!

  3. Why don't people buy newspapers any more? BBC stuff is deliberately word count limited and gives a good quality appraisal. You can't live off even though it is incredibly good. Reading internet sources widely, filtering out the non-quality, does give you the story but its so easy to get mired down and slip over a cross-link to something uncited or just made-up or re-reported.
    The quality of reporting in the Sundays tends not to appear online. In fact, loads of stuff doesn't appear online even at Guardian or Torygraph or wherever. Sunday Times News Review - four broadsheet pages about the career of Litvinenko and his political connections? That's a lot of proper journalism and wordage. Not seen online. Hey, if you want the short version I'm sure wikimakeupedia will tell you all about Polonium.
    We can't be pretending that the internet replaces newspapers already? It just doesn't. Page clicks and adverts everywhere, frequently edited down or distracted by public comments (who the fuck cares what the public thinks? best con ever! comments on news websites are not even in the same league of the letters page to a newspaper. Who cares about blogs and comments from ukg-a-like armchair wannabes and their opinion on Russian foreign policy?).
    (unstructured semi-rant ends, phew!)

  4. Who poisoned Litvinenko?
    My money is on Freddy Forsythe - master of the spy novella and lover of all things murky & cold war. These over the horizon munitions must be driving him crazy! What you need... what you need see, is a genuine Russkie plot using raw fish, poison and dodgy Kremlin dealings.
    Go Freddy!

  5. Let me fix the way I killed this thread - and get back on topic.
    The developments about radioactivity on BA planes is a huge eye-opener to the gravity of the investigation and the failure to contain what was a criminal and/or covert operation, state sponsored or otherwise. It's hard to see the avenues and information available to The Met in the UK, but if they've got proof of Polonium on certain planes/flights then that surely gives names which surely gives perpetrators and clearer history?
    This is no longer a Len Deighton Freddie Forsyth Cold War Georgi Markov Cold War red vs blue incident. Litvinenko's death, and so his cause, would seem to have legs and is not going away.
    It's could be a bit of a dead end however if it turns out that Litvinenko was in Moscow and was poisoned there, not in London. That might be a bit of an investigative brick wall.

  6. Litvinenko hasn't been in Moscow for years as far as I know. If he'd have set foot there he'd be arrested. There's some interesting stuff about how they're tracking some Russians who were at a football match. Plausible cover for operatives I would have thought.