The radioactive poisoning of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko raises many disturbing questions. And, as British Home Secretary John Reid said, the investigation should not make any premature assumptions and should be prepared to go in every possible direction. The Putin government, assuming it has nothing to hide, should cooperate with the British. The Kremlin’s own self-interest requires nothing less than clearly addressing Western suspicions about its possible role in the assassination.
When a vitriolic critic of President Vladimir Putin is poisoned with a nuclear isotope, questions about Moscow’s involvement are inevitable and appropriate. What is not appropriate is the highly simplistic and sometimes even misleading coverage of the affair in some Western media. Consider a December 5 story in The Washington Post, “British Police Take Poisoning Inquiry to Moscow,” by Mary Jordan and Peter Finn. It starts by referring to Litvinenko as “a former Russian spy.” But there is no record that Litvinenko ever served with Russian foreign intelligence, either in the post-KGB foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR, or military intelligence, known as the GRU. On the contrary, after junior assignments in FSB counterintelligence, the post-KGB internal security agency, Litvinenko built a name for himself in its organized crime department. According to a remarkably insightful story in The New York Times (“Russian Ex-Spy Lived in a World of Deceptions,” by Alan Cowell, December 3), in that capacity Litvinenko developed a relationship with leading Russian oligarch Boris Berzovsky as early as 1994. During that period of free fall after the collapse of Soviet institutions, Berezovsky openly mixed his senior positions in the Russian government with aggressive privatization of state assets for his own benefit. And Litvinenko’s department in the FSB was frequently viewed not so much as a law enforcement agency, but as a part of organized crime itself.
Worse, The Washington Post misleadingly describes Berezovsky as “a billionaire now living in self-imposed exile in London” who “was a friend of Litvinenko’s.” Anyone who read Paul Klebnikov’s Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia would know that Litvinenko’s “friend” was much more than an anti-Putin business leader. He was a master of Kremlin intrigue, widely reputed in numerous, and now public, accounts of bribing and corrupting everything and everyone around him, including members of Boris Yeltsin’s family. And Berezovsky does not just oppose Putin’s rule—he has said on several occasions that he is actively pursuing regime change in Russia using his base in London and his business and political contacts from Ukraine to Georgia.
In the first days after Litvinenko’s illness became known to the public, the primary source of information about what had happened and Litvinenko’s suspicions of Putin was Alex Goldfarb, who The Washington Post and others describe as “a friend of Litvinenko’s” or a “friend of the family.” Goldfarb certainly was a friend and could probably even be considered a member of the family—in the same way that Tom Hagen was a key member of the Godfather’s family in the famous movie. Goldfarb—officially the director of Berezovsky’s Foundation for Civil Liberties—is one of Berezovsky’s close associates. Interestingly, despite being known as a relentless publicity seeker, Berezovsky has sought to downplay his role and that of his organization in this instance. Based on his past conduct, one would have expected at a minimum that Berezovsky would attempt to use the Litvinenko matter to pursue his stated objective of discrediting and undermining Putin.
At present, there are three main theories of Litvinenko’s killing. One is the Kremlin plot that Goldfarb described when quoting what Litvinenko allegedly dictated on his deathbed. This requires one of two assumptions. The first—that the leader of a major nuclear power is dangerously devoid of basic common sense and any instinct for self-preservation—defies our previous experience with Putin. Killing a fairly insignificant political opponent in a key European capital with a highly traceable material would demonstrate an appalling lack of judgment in an area where most of Putin’s critics see sinister genius rather than Yeltsin-style bumbling.
But this logic holds only if Litvinenko was nothing more than an extremely harsh Putin critic, someone who accused the pesident of being a pedophile on a Chechen website and blamed him for bombings in Moscow and even in London, but ultimately did little to endanger Putin’s or Russia’s security in a serious way. The alternative assumption is that the Kremlin saw Litvinenko as a real threat, perhaps because of his Chechen links. It is clear that Litvinenko was quite close to at least some Chechen rebels, like exiled separatist spokesman Akhmed Zakayev, whom he saw on November 1, the day he was reportedly poisoned. If Litvinenko had been actively involved with Chechen insurgents, Moscow’s calculations could have been quite different. After all, it is widely believed, and even privately admitted in Moscow government circles, that the Kremlin authorized the killing of former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in 2004. And the Duma recently passed a law authorizing the assassination of suspected terrorists outside Russian borders. So, before dismissing the Kremlin connection, it is essential to establish what exactly Mr. Litvinenko—a recent convert to Islam—was involved in and to examine any involvement he could have had with Islamic extremist organizations that might be interested in polonium-210 for dirty bombs or other uses.
The second theory of Litvinenko’s poisoning comes straight from the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. In the film, the head of SPECTRE, Ernst Blofeld, seeks to provoke a U.S.-Soviet confrontation by creating a false impression that they are seizing each other’s spacecraft. In this instance, Berezovsky would be the mastermind of an effort to set Britain and the West against Putin. He would have both a motive and the capability to use the Litvinenko assassination to frame the Russian leader. And anyone familiar with Berezovsky’s activities in Russia would have to entertain the possibility that he would have the combination of imagination, resources and utter ruthlessness to sacrifice his former protégé to advance his anti-Putin designs.
A new book published in Moscow by Alexander Khinshtein, a pro-Kremlin journalist and Duma member, provides a detailed account (with transcripts of Berezovsky’s phone conversations in July 1996), demonstrating Berezovsky’s key role in creating quite “a performance” to let Yeltsin think that his security chiefs were involved in a conspiracy against the Russian president (Yeltsin. Kreml. Istoriya bolezni, Alexander Khinshtein, 2006). The purpose was to remove from Yeltsin’s entourage those who were an obstacle to Berezovsky’s influence. In 1999, according to the memoirs of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Berezovsky again fed false information to Yeltsin and his family to create an impression that they were threatened by Primakov’s anti-corruption investigations. Later, Berezovsky used his control of TV channel ORT to launch a vicious and highly misleading campaign against Primakov on behalf of the new Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, whom he helped come to power. With Putin at first refusing to follow Berezovsky’s guidance and then strongly moving against the oligarch, Berezovsky made it his mission in life to have a regime change in Moscow.
What speaks against this scenario is the terrible personal risk Berezovsky would be taking in the process. He would have to anticipate that while he and his allies could influence Western opinion, they would be in a much weaker position to manipulate a professional investigation by Scotland Yard or by Russian security services determined to demonstrate that Moscow was not to blame. With his obvious connection to Litvinenko and his reputation as an unscrupulous intriguer, Berezovsky would have to know that he himself would become a target of any serious investigation.
Andrey Lugovoi, another former FSB officer now identified as a prime suspect in some news reports, could have been a key player in either the Kremlin or the Berezovsky scenarios. Lugovoi met with Litvinenko on November 1 and was on one of the British Airways flights contaminated by polonium-210. And he has both an obvious FSB connection as well as a less-discussed Berezovsky connection: while still with the FSB in the 1990s, Lugovoi was simultaneously a security officer at the Russian television channel ORT, then controlled by Berezovsky. In 2001-02, he spent time in the infamous Lefortovo prison for helping another Berezovsky associate, Nikolai Glushkov, to escape from detention. His loyalty in this instance is unclear, and Moscow should provide Scotland Yard with direct access to him.
The third and final theory relates to Litvinenko’s personal pursuits rather than his struggle against Putin or his affiliation with Berezovsky. A Russian academic in England recently claimed that Litvinenko was thinking about making money by blackmailing Russian businessmen. Should that be true, a number of individuals and groups could have had a motive to kill him. Suspicions that groups of current and former FSB officers are responsible for killing Litvinenko fit right into this theory.
While the Litvinenko mystery is right out of a spy movie, the stakes in real life—including for the West’s relationship with Russia—are very high. If the evidence does indeed lead to the Kremlin, whitewashing it is not an option. But what is not in the West’s interest is to allow Putin’s political enemies at home and abroad to bring both him and the West into a confrontation based on a set-up, or at least on false information.
Posted by Dimitri Simes at 12/06/2006 02:36:14 PM |