Theories about Alexandr Litvinenko’s death continue to swirl around the media. And while most suspect that the “fierce Kremlin critic” was assassinated by Putin or persons connected to him, another less highlighted theory is that Litvinenko might have been caught up in a polonium smuggling ring. This idea isn’t new. Russia Blog reported in December that the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung was “looking into the possibility that radiation poisoning victim Alexander Litvinenko and his associate Dimitry Kovtun were involved in smuggling polonium out of Russia.” “Alongside several other versions behind this crime,” a German police officer told the Berliner Zeitung at the time, “we are seriously considering the possibility that Litvinenko’s death could have been connected to the illegal trade in nuclear materials.” The officer then added that no clear evidence had been uncovered yet.
Now it seems that the polonium plot thickens. Reuters is reporting that Dmity Kovtun, who met with Litvinenko in London on 1 November with Andrei Lugovoy (who happens to be the former head of security for Boris Berezovsky), is going to Germany to talk to investigations about polonium smuggling. November 1 was the same day Litvinenko began complaining about feeling ill. Kovtun, of course, denies any connection to Litvinenko’s death. “Ach, wirklich?” say the Germans.
“Kovtun wants to come to Hamburg to meet with prosecutors, among other things,” attorney Wolfgang Vehlow told Reuters, adding that Kovtun has permanent residency in Germany and considers the northern port city of Hamburg a home.
Vehlow said it was unclear when the trip would happen. Kovtun developed symptoms of radiation poisoning, according to Russian prosecutors, and both he and Lugovoy spent several weeks in hospital after their return to Moscow from London.
There are conflicting reports about Kovtun’s health, but Vehlow said Kovtun was well enough to travel to Germany.
In other developments in the affair, it appears that the Russians and British have concluded a deal that would allow Russian investigators to question Boris Berezovsky. Or so said Deputy Prosecutor-General Alexander Zvyagintsev in an interview with Izvestia. The apparent deal with the Brits didn’t stop Zvyagintsev from rapping Britain for, of all things, bureaucratism. “Unfortunately, too much time is being taken up with technical and procedural questions and I hope they can be resolved faster,” Zvyagintsev complained. Adding, “When last year the English asked us to let them come here we did not insist on the observation of some of the formalities … Do we not have the right to expect similar cooperation?” Um, I don’t know, I distinctly remember the Russians unleashing their own “bureaucratic blitz” to stall the British investigation.
At some point you just have to sit back and appreciate the utter hilarity in all this.
Special thanks to Heribert Schindler from ?????????? ????????? for the German help. See comments section below.
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By Sean — 12 years ago
It is rather old news to report that Alexander Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning in London. The news, after all, is everywhere. Even CNN has made it the main story on their website. That is until a flood or car crash occurs. The question now inevitably becomes: Who did it? And Why?
Why was Alexander Litvinenko murdered? He was after all a staunch critic of the Kremlin and Putin. His book, Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within, accused the FSB outright for the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow. He claimed that the bombings were Putin’s Reichstag fire for the second Chechen war. It doesn’t take much logic to believe that Litvinenko had many enemies for such views, beginning with his former comrades in the FSB and ending with the Kremlin itself. This is why so much reporting is ready to point the finger directly at Putin. The murder confirms what many people already believe about Russia.
As to the variety of possible explanations for Litvinenko’s murder, the Times London has presented five theories. They are Putin cleaning house before the 2008 Presidential elections, the Berezovsky connection, the Chechen connection, rouge FSB elements, and natural causes or suicide.
Claiming the first two says more about one’s political views toward the Kremlin than anything else. The first theory suggests that Putin seeks to eliminate all political internal and external opposition before the elections. The second is its binary opposite. It claims that Berezovsky seeks to destabilize Russia by way of undermining Putin’s authority.
I claimed a few weeks ago that Politkovskaya had become a political football, if not a pi?ata. The same is happening to Litvinenko. And it is already starting. In response to the news of his death, Putin said “I am really sorry that a person’s death is being used for political provocation.” Sadly, Putin is guilty of the very same thing he charges his critics.
The suicide or natural causes theory can be dismissed rather easily. There are simply easier ways to off oneself. And I would gather that death by radiation poising could hardly be qualified as “natural causes.”
The other two theories, rogue FSB elements and the Chechen connection, are interesting, but the Times dismisses them under the belief that the FSB is “tightly under Putin’s control” and that in regard to the Chechens, Litvnenko “posed no direct threat to Kadyrov’s regime and his key criticisms were directed against the war launched by Putin.” I still think the rogue FSB is a possibility, though the existence of such high grade poison, polonium-210, suggests that these people had to be pretty high up to have access to it. And the higher you go up the FSB food chain, the more likely they would be directly connected to Putin.
As far as the Chechen connection goes, well it sounds like Kadyrov’s men have their hands full assassinating their own troublemakers. A perhaps more important story that has been overshadowed by Litvinenko’s poisoning is how a few days ago Kadyrov’s Interior Ministry gunned down Movladi Baisarov right on Leninskii Prospekt in Moscow.
Still, four of the five theories are plausible. It is, after all, not beyond the Russian state to assassinate thorns in its side. A recent article in Kommersant listed five high profile poisonings since 1995. Four of them directly implicated the FSB. Nor is it beyond cloak and dagger types to exact revenge against someone they view as a traitor.
More theories steeped in political opportunism are likely to emerge. For example, in a statement to Haaretz, former Yukos CEO and now exile Leonid Nevzlin claimed that “Litvinenko’s murder was tied to the information relating to Yukos contained in the documents.” Nevzlin turned these over to the London Metropolitan Police.
People close to Litvinenko claim that his murder was in connection to his investigation of Anna Politkovskaya’s death.
Litvinenko himself was certain who ordered his death. And he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity of taking a final swipe at Putin. In a posthumous statement published in the Financial Times, he said:
But as I lie here I can distinctly hear the beating of wings of the angel of death. I may be able to give him the slip but I have to say my legs do not run as fast as I would like. I think, therefore, that this may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition.
You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.
You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilised value.
You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilised men and women.
You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.
Did the Kremlin do it? I personally have no idea. But if they did then they are either incompetent or shortsighted. The murder has become international news, generating a PR maelstrom that will only hamper the Kremlin’s position and aspirations. Once again Putin has to deal with uncomfortable question after uncomfortable question lobbed by European media at this weekend’s Helsinki Conference. Further, it makes Putin’s recent editorial, “Europe Has Nothing to Fear From Russia’s Aspirations” in the Financial Times unreadable without a cynical chuckle. Lastly, the Litvinenko assassination conjures more ghosts that I would imagine the Kremlin would like people to forget. So if the Kremlin did order the killing, then their stupidity is beyond measure.
But perhaps the remembrance generated by Litvinenko’s murder is really what connects this strange and sordid tale to a much larger political struggle.
As Boris Kargalitsky states in a comment on Eurasian Home,
Raising the ghosts of the past would be the most disadvantageous tactics for the Russian administration under the circumstances. Litvinenko, residing in London, was not a thorn in the side for the Russian authorities, all the more that his version of the explosions in Moscow in 1999 is just one in series and not the most convincing. But when the former KGB agent becomes victim of an attempt, his imputations gain credibility and the whole affair moves to the front burner. The Kremlin’s foes will not miss a chance to use the poisoning of Litvinenko as one more argument against the authorities and to put it in line with such cases as the murder of Politkovskaya and the residential houses explosions in 1999. Moscow will again be seen from the West as a capital of the “evil Empire”. But what’s the Kremlin’s use in all that?
It is only in “first approximation” that the renowned critics of the present regime seem to be the only victims of the current events. If we consider the situation in more detail, we will find that the authorities are extremely vulnerable to such developments. The blows hit the commentators of the Big Game, living the opposition leaders safe and sound. As a result the opposition gets its martyrs and the authorities are brought into challenge. Under these circumstances the pro-Kremlin analysts have all reasons to assure that Litvinenko’s poisoning and the journalist’s murder are mere provocations and that the opposition itself and Boris Berezovsky in person have organized the affairs in order to discredit the Kremlin’s ruling elite.
For all that it’s difficult to think of Mr. Berezovsky trying to kill his closest associate in London. However vicious he might be, he is not crazy. Mr. Berezovsky perfectly understands that once Scotland Yard finds out something, he won’t get away with it.
The 1999 explosions in Moscow reflected the struggle for power within the ruling elite. The current murders and murder attempts have the same nature. Neither President Putin nor Mr. Berezovsky would contract such murders – for both of them the possibility of the backlash of the event is higher than possible revenues. I reckon there are other stakeholders at a lower level who pursue their own interests and use their own methods.
Intensification of the struggle for power is the result of their activity. The less stable the situation in the country is the more there is ground for the drastic changes in political life of the country. And undermining Russia’s position in the world will permit the political elites to retain control over the new President, making him a hostage of those who have led him to power. Dirty and ineffective political tricks will make the successor more dependent on forces behind the Kremlin’s throne.
The Big Game is on and it’s not the presidential post that is at stake. It is the leverage of control over whoever gets this post.
The “Big Game”. Thus we’ve come full circle back to the first two theories put forward by Putin and his enemies. Both Litvinenko’s and Politkovskaya’s murders are part of a wider struggle within the Russian elite for control in 2008. Perhaps, then, looking only at the top echelons of both the Kremlin and the opposition is diverting attention away from the unknown, yet influential players positioned in the elite’s middle levels. This I think is the most frightening theory of them all.Post Views: 1,481
By Sean — 12 years ago
Poisongate continues and though there is other news that pertains to Russia, while spoil the fun and turn to something of importance? Well, its not that Poisongate isn’t important, but it certainly appears to be on the verge of jumping the shark.
Still, the Western media’s obsession with the whole story hasn’t abated and it seems people are still interested. So while I’ve been tempted to begin covering other matters, I’m also torn with giving “the people” what the want.
But where to start? There is such a cacophony of articles dealing with either the Litvinenko investigation or Yegor Gaidar’s “poisoning” that is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Be that as it may, here are some reports I find interesting.
The London Observer is reporting that through interviews with individuals close to Litvinenko, Scotland Yard has found that he intended to use the supposed FSB files in his possession to blackmail “individuals and companies that had fallen foul of the Kremlin.” This comes from interviews with Julia Svetlichnaya, a Russian academic who met with Litvinenko earlier this year and received over 100 emails from him, and Yuri Shvets, a former FSB agent now living in Washington who claims to have vital information as to who and why Litvinenko was targeted.
“He told me he was going to blackmail or sell sensitive information about all kinds of powerful people, including oligarchs, corrupt officials and sources in the Kremlin,” Svetlichnaya told the Observer. “He mentioned a figure of ?10,000 that they would pay each time to stop him broadcasting these FSB documents. Litvinenko was short of money and was adamant that he could obtain any files he wanted.” This testimony was corroborated by FBI interviews with Shvets. An associate close to Shvets, on the condition of anonymity told the Observer that “that Litvinenko had claimed in the weeks before his death that he possessed a dossier containing damaging revelations about the Kremlin and its relationship with the Yukos oil company. The associate claimed that Shvets compiled the dossier.”
The plot thickens and the canonization of Litvinenko as a “dissident” appears even more spurious. It looks as if he might have been looking to use his shocking “information” to his own financial advantage.
This news comes on the heels of more strange facts coming to light. The Observer is also reporting that Scotland Yard is examining letters “smuggled” out of Russia that point to a secret FSB squad set up to “knock out all those associated with Berezovsky and Litvinenko.” The letters were written by Mikhail Trepashkin, another intelligence officer who now serving a four year sentence in Russia for being a British spy. How Trepashkin knows this information from jail is unclear. But they came into Scotland Yard possession via Litvinenko’s London friend and family spokesman, Alex Goldfarb. Goldfarb is a chief proponent of the theory that Litvinenko was murdered by order of the Kremlin.
In relation to Goldfarb’s role in the Litvinenko Affair, the Sunday Herald had this to report:
Regardless of what the “truth” in this murky affair turns out to be, there is a feeling in Russia that the UK public has had the wool pulled over it eyes. That is debatable, but what is undeniable and widely unknown in the UK is that media coverage of Mr Litvinenko’s awful illness and demise has, to a large extent, been carefully orchestrated by a group of people with an axe to grind.
As such, from the outset, the public was encouraged to entertain only one possibility: that President Vladimir Putin, a former spy himself, was behind the mysterious poisoning of a man he considered a traitor.
Such a theory appeared to fit in with everything we know about Russia in 2006: that freedom of the media is a scarce commodity; that there has been an alarming upsurge in contract killings; and that Mr Putin is increasingly authoritarian and tolerates little or no political opposition.
It was, therefore, an easy leap to assume he had dispatched a group of killers to take care of a troublesome ?migr? living in London. This widely accepted “Putin/the Kremlin did it” theory may turn out to have been right all along but for the time being it is worth noting there is little evidence beyond the circumstantial to support it.
What anyone interested in this Machiavellian tale of poisoning and spooks should also know is that one man, a sworn enemy of Mr Putin, has almost single-handedly ensured the UK media have given pre-eminence to the “Putin did it” theory.
That man is UK-based oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a businessman estimated to be worth ?540million who was granted political asylum in the UK in 2001.
It was his right-hand man, Alex Goldfarb, who “did a deal” with a national newspaper to provide an exclusive bedside interview with the dying Mr Litvinenko, creating a media feeding frenzy around the story in the first place.
It was the same Mr Goldfarb who persuaded an eminent London toxicologist to stand up on national TV and say Mr Litvinenko had been poisoned with thallium, a claim that later turned out to be false but gave the story “fresh legs.” Never mind that the toxicologist was not actually treating Mr Litvinenko and had not examined his hospital records.
And it was Mr Berezovsky’s retained public relations agency, Bell-Pottinger, which distributed an image that has come to define this complicated story: that of the emaciated, hairless, dying Mr Litvinenko on his deathbed.
With all this in mind, I think Kirill Pankratov’s article, “Toxic Avenger?” published in this week’s Exile, is food for thought in terms of Litvinenko’s significance as a “vitriolic critic of Putin.”
The other half of Poisongate, the sudden illness of Yegor Gaidar, is coming under even more scrutiny, even from Gaidar’s own mother. In an interview with the Irish Times, Ariana Gaidar claimed that her son’s illness was possibly connected with his diabetes and hypertension. This has also been suggested by Seamus Martin, who was a witness to Gaidar’s illness, along with his claims that some of the information given by Gaidar’s people and his daughter, Maria, “are manifestly untrue.” Martin went so far as to charge that “An attempt on her father’s life would help to give [Maria] publicity for her political campaigns, and there is little doubt that she used her father’s illness very effectively.”
Much has been made of the fact that Maria Gaidar, who is the leader of the youth group “Da!,” is a fierce critic of Putin. Last week, she and Yabloko youth leader Ilya Yashin, unfurled a banner on a bridge spanning the river Moskva, that read “Bring Back Elections!” Police detained the two and charged them with holding an “unauthorized picket.” The banner was a protest against legislation that would “which would abolish the 20% minimum voter turnout requirement and ban negative campaigning on television, along with absentee ballots.” Critics see the potential law as a further curtailment of electoral democracy.
Further, Irish police are saying that there is no evidence that Gaidar was poisoned. In regard to what doctors who examined Gaidar have to say, all we know is that Irish health authorities are positive that he was not poisoned by radiation a la Litvinenko. A diagnosis made by doctors in Moscow has yet to be made public. All we have to go on is the information provided by Gaidar’s aides, who claim that he was deliberately poisoned by something.
So like the Litvinenko Affair, the Gaidar Affair is quickly descending into “he said, she said,” not to mention, conspiracy theory upon conspiracy theory.
Thus any hard conclusions as to what the hell is going on with Poisongate still remains up in the air and anyone’s guess.Post Views: 469
By Sean — 10 years ago
The recent flurry in the comments section over the polonium poisoning of Aleksandr Litvinenko has inspired me to revisit the issue. When I last left the case, it was reveled that Litvinenko was on retainer with MI6. Andrei Lugovoi, Britain’s chief suspect in the crime, was listed as a Duma candidate on the LDPR ticket. Now Deputy Lugovoi’s goal was to get the immunity that comes with the seat. Lugovoi didn’t need it. The Russian Constitution prohibits extradition, and the Russians weren’t looking like their they were going to fold anyway.
Nevertheless, Lugovoi was clearly looking for a little extra krysha in case some behind the scenes deal was hammered out. Zhirinovskii’s LDPR was a good pick. The case is the kinda thing the flamboyant Zhirik loves, and that is despite the fact the LDPR (and all major Russian political parties) are known to sell their Duma seats to the highest bidder. Whether Lugovoi dolled out cash for the privilege of getting one of the forty coveted LDPR seats is unknown. It’s likely that adding Lugovoi to the ticket was a PR move on Zhirik’s part. Not to mention a way to stick it to the Brits.
Here we are in April 2008 and the fascination with the Litvinenko case doesn’t seem to be going away. There is no real reason why it should. The case is just flat out weird. And it’s getting weirder. On April 1, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution urging the Kremlin to aid the British in their investigation. House Resolution 154, authored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lethtinen (R, FL-18th). The resolution is fitting for an April Fool’s joke. With a sliding economy, a war seemingly without end, and litany of other domestic issues, one would think the House has something better to do. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to think so.
Litvinenko’s wife Marina is continuing her efforts to get her husband’s murder solved. And who could blame her given the circumstances and the aftermath of her husband’s death. In a plea published in the London Times, Mrs. Litvinenko is doubtful Lugovoi will ever be extradited, saying “I cannot wait for another ten years for a slim chance that their approach would bear fruit.” Ten years? Try never. She understands this as much as anyone else and instead of urging the British government to issue yet another extradition request, she rather have them open the investigation to the public. “If I cannot get justice,” she writes, “then at least I need the full truth.”
Perhaps. I’m increasingly convinced that the “full truth” will never be revealed in this case. Simply because the “truth” became so blackened by both the British and the Russians as soon as the case became a diplomatic fiasco. So much of the available information has been subject to what Nick Davies calls “flat earth news” i.e. “A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.”
“Flat earth news” aptly describes the Litvinenko case. The question of who killed him is so mired in duel of diplomatic dick swinging between the “rule of law” British versus shadowy “elements of the Russian government” (the British version) and a conniving Boris Berezovsky and an “imperialist” Britain using the Litvinenko case in a broader effort to undermine Russian sovereignty (the Russian version). Finally, the biggest flat earth notion of all is the canonization of Litvinenko as some sort of dissident martyr. A LexisNexis search for use of “Litvinenko” and “dissident” in the same sentence reveals 597 stories. Even more interesting is that the two words appear only in five articles before his poisoning in November 2006.
Creeping from the mire is a theory that Litvinenko was poisoned by accidentally coming into contact with or being personally involved in a polonium smuggling ring. This is the line Edward Jay Epstein is peddling his article “The Specter that Haunts the Death of Litvinenko” in the New York Sun. Granted, the Sun is, as Marina Litvinenko called it, “a third rate paper.” But Epstein has made the Litvinenko Case a pet project, doing more investigation into it than any other Western journalist. You can find a his thoughts on the case on his blog. The question then is if Epstein’s investigation is so serious and thorough then why publish it in a proto-tabloid like the Sun? I think the answer is simple. Epstein’s take on the Litvinenko Case completely diverges from the accepted narrative you find in every paper that has covered the story. Perhaps, he suggests, the earth isn’t as flat as we think.
Epstein’s article is worth a read. Not so much because he has any concrete evidence linking Litvinenko’s murder to polonium smuggling. In fact, his evidence is no more solid that any other journalists’ account. The article’s value is in his questioning of the accepted and unchallenged assumptions about the British investigation, the chain of events, Litvinenko’s movement around London, the role of Berezovsky, and why no one seems to be concerned about finding out where exactly the polonium came from, especially given the global concern for possible nuclear terrorism. The British criminal indictment of Andrei Lugovoi has obscured the very question of nuclear terrorism. Epstein writes,
In terms of a public relations tactic, it resulted in a brilliant success by putting the blame on Russian stonewalling for the failure to solve the mystery. What it obscured is the elephant-in-the-room that haunts the case: the fact that a crucial component for building an early-stage nuke was smuggled into London in 2006. Was it brought in merely as a murder weapon or as part of a transaction on the international arms market?
This leads him to his own hypothesis:
After considering all the evidence, my hypothesis is that Litvinenko came in contact with a Polonium-210 smuggling operation and was, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposed to it. Litvinenko had been a person of interest to the intelligence services of many countries, including Britain’s MI-6, Russia’s FSB, America’s CIA (which rejected his offer to defect in 2000), and Italy’s SISMI, which was monitoring his phone conversations.
His murky operations, whatever their purpose, involved his seeking contacts in one of the most lawless areas in the former Soviet Union, the Pankisi Gorge, which had become a center for arms smuggling. He had also dealt with people accused of everything from money laundering to trafficking in nuclear components. These activities may have brought him, or his associates, in contact with a sample of Polonium-210, which then, either by accident or by design, contaminated and killed him.
To unlock the mystery, Britain must make available its secret evidence, including the autopsy report, the comprehensive list of places in which radiation was detected, and the surveillance reports of Litvinenko and his associates. If Britain considers it too sensitive for public release, it should be turned over to an international commission of inquiry. The stakes are too high here to leave unresolved the mystery of the smuggled Polonium-210.
The Russian media gleefully jumped all over Epstein’s article. Andrei Lugovoi quickly voiced his agreement with Epstein’s finding in a press conference. “I was pleasantly surprised that a foreign journalist carried out the first independent investigation into the “Litvinenko Case” and made, in my view, the correct conclusions.”
Who knows whether Epstein is right or wrong, or I should say, no more right or wrong than anyone else. But at least he’s stirring the proverbial pot.Post Views: 606