The death of exiled former FSB (the domestic-security successor to the KGB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko in London last November momentarily relegated Britney and K-Fed, Oprah, and Madonna to the second pages of Western tabloids. It also sparked a frenzy of speculation about who stands behind the apparent murder—or “murders,” since talk of political assassination was already in the air, East and West, following the October shooting of anti-Kremlin journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Add to that the mysterious illness of former (albeit “acting”) Premier Yegor Gaydar in Dublin shortly following Litvinenko’s death (was it related to Mr. Gaydar’s diabetes or a poisoning?), and the fictional antics of Fu Manchu, Dr. No, Blofeld, and Professor Moriarty may not seem as far-fetched as they once did.
Every interested Russian has at least one pet versiya explaining the bizarre poisoning of Litvinenko by a radioactive isotope (Polonium 210), and bloggers around the globe have punched out countless words reconstructing Litvinenko’s movements on the fateful day, November 1, when he met with two Russians (both former KGB officers) at the Millennium Hotel, and at a popular London sushi bar with Mario Scaramella, a shady Italian “expert” on everything from nuclear energy to Soviet/Russian intelligence operations, who was also contaminated by Polonium 210 (as was Litvinenko’s wife, Marina). Scaramella reportedly passed to Litvinenko certain information from Russian sources on the activities of a group of Russian “special services” veterans (“Honor and Dignity”) who had compiled a list of “enemies of the people” marked for liquidation—a list that included Politkovskaya, Scaramella, and Litvinenko.
Some days, a professional Kremlinologist has to play the role of amateur homicide detective. There have been a number of such days recently. Let us begin with the “Honor and Dignity” line of investigation. Westerners are largely unaware of two things: First, a number of lists of “enemies of the people” have been floating around on Russian-language websites for months. Since the March 2004 attempted assassination of Anatoli Chubays, who was once in charge of Yeltsin’s privatization program and probably the most hated man in Russia, there has been talk of a “patriotic” underground that has been aiming to settle accounts with him—and Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, and Gaydar. Second, organizations such as Honor and Dignity are likely shot through with informers and security agents. Thus, it becomes unclear whether we are talking about a private operation or one that merely has private cover.
The Honor and Dignity versiya takes us back full circle to the most simple explanation—and most popular in the West—for the deaths of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko: Elements in the Russian security services, with or without Putin’s sanction, are punishing “enemies of the people” and seeking to intimidate critics of the regime. Litvinenko was a relentless critic of Putin and the FSB and had written books on alleged FSB involvement in the 1999 terrorist bombings of Russian apartment buildings, as well as various criminal activities.
This versiya only scratches the surface of possible explanations, however. Here are some others (and this is hardly an exhaustive list): Litvinenko was engaged in a shady business deal with Russian contacts involving smuggling radioactive materials—or maybe it involved the international weapons trade, or perhaps Litvinenko was offering up kompromat that could be used to blackmail Russian luminaries, including Putin himself. One variation on the smuggling story has Litvinenko, who supposedly converted to Islam on his deathbed, delivering nuclear material to Islamic terrorists. Whatever the details, the shady deal went bad, so his contacts killed him. Such activity is certainly not unheard of in Russian circles, though the method seems a bit complicated. (Why not just push Litvinenko under a bus or use a much simpler and less volatile poison?)
Was Litvinenko killed in a sort of sting operation because of the kompromat he may have had? According to information in the British press and from “fallen” Yukos Oil Company “oligarch” Leonid Nevzlin, Litvinenko had information on a Kremlin plan to intimidate former Yukos executives and force them to repatriate huge sums of money to Russia. (Former Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovskiy is currently serving time in a Russian prison; the charges against him and his company were widely seen by Russians as part of a plan by Kremlin-connected oil barons to take over Yukos.)
There have been at least two other possible assassinations connected to the Yukos affair, and Kremlin-connected oil companies are now aiming to seize control of the remaining Yukos assets. One of the possible victims in the Yukos affair was Roman Tsepov, a former Putin bodyguard who had reportedly attempted to act as a mediator between Yukos and the Kremlin, while demanding a generous cut of the loot for himself. In 2004, Tsepov died of a mysterious ailment some claimed to have been radiation poisoning. Then there was Stephen Curtis, the British managing director of a company that had been the chief Yukos shareholder. Curtis was also killed in 2004, in a helicopter crash. He was said to have been in charge of funneling Yukos money to “offshore zones” and had told British police he had received death threats.
There is also a “Chechen trail” to follow. Litvinenko was a close associate of “fugitive oligarch” and fierce Kremlin critic Boris Abramovich Berezovskiy (aka “BAB”). BAB, who lives in London, where there is a substantial Russian colony, is linked in turn to the camp of the late Chechen insurgent leader Aslan Maskhadov. Litvinenko frequently posted items on Chechen websites, and his death was mourned in certain Chechen circles, though not in all—specifically not in that of pro-Moscow warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. Maybe Ramzan did it, though poisoning is hardly his style.
Another angle: Berezovskiy himself, or in league with the Yukos exiles, killed his friend to damage Putin’s image in the West—and possibly to enlist Western governments in a plan to foment a Russian version of the “Orange Revolution.” This scenario was bolstered somewhat by reports that Litvinenko had supposedly fallen out with Berezovskiy. Litvinenko had also reportedly been warned that his association with Berezovskiy was putting his life in danger. (Was Litvinenko in danger because he was BAB’s friend or because he was no longer BAB’s friend?) Interestingly, one of the Russians Litvinenko met with on November 1, Andrey Lugovoy, is also a former bodyguard for both BAB and Mr. Gaydar.
Finally, there is another story that also involves an attempt to implicate Putin in the death of Litvinenko so as to damage Putin’s relations with the West. In this case, the plotters are not in the camp of Putin’s enemies but among members of his own circle.
Sources in the Kremlin administration paint a picture of Vladimir Putin that does not quite conform to that usually painted in either Russian or Western media. For instance, Putin is hardly the hard-working, ambitious, all-knowing, “hands on” Supreme Leader he is portrayed as, despite his reputation as a man with “German” work habits. (Putin speaks German, did his KGB service in East Germany, and is quite the Germanophile.) He sleeps late and frequently spends at least an hour and a half swimming, then rides his horses before leaving his dacha, arriving at the Kremlin around noon. The Kremlin staff is fractured, torn by various “clan” conflicts, and its work is marked by laziness and general sloppiness—a tone set by Putin himself. Putin is a quick study, though, and has adapted well to the public role he plays as Kremlin boss. He prefers a quick briefing paper to lengthy study and can recite details from memory. Putin has also spoken (sometimes publicly) about his distaste for politics and has intimated that he was reluctant to become president. Everybody wants something from him; whom can he trust?
And how did Putin become Yeltsin’s successor? Vladimir Vladimirovich (“VVP”) supposedly turned down representatives of Yeltsin’s clan at first and had to be approached (pressured?) again, perhaps several times. Since becoming president, he has contemplated leaving office a number of times. The task, so the story goes, was made a little easier by his business partnership with the “Yeltsin family cashier,” billionaire Roman Abramovich, who, like so many of his colleagues, spends most of his time in London these days. Putin longs to live Abramovich’s life, and such will be his payoff when the time comes, for he has amassed a considerable fortune of his own. As 2008 and the end of his time as president approaches, he dodges making difficult decisions, has become more indecisive, and is unable to control the warring factions around him. He tells members of his entourage whatever they wish to hear, endorsing first one candidate as his successor, then promising support to another.
According to Russian sources, there are certain members of his entourage, particularly the shadowy deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Igor Sechin, and his allies, who may not want Putin to leave. Things are dangerous in Russia during a change of power. Who knows what a Putin successor might do once VVP is safely out of office, spending his money, establishing residences in, say, London and Germany, where he has many Western friends? Whatever VVP or an anointed successor may guarantee now regarding the safety and security of his allies and their property may not amount to much later. Just ask BAB about that. And these same people, many of whom took part in the dismemberment of Yukos and the case that sent Khodorkovskiy to prison, are now concerned that other factions who favor closer ties to the West might offer up members of Putin’s “special services” entourage as a sacrifice, setting Khodorkovskiy free and seizing their property in the bargain. This will satisfy the “human-rights defenders” in the West and maybe soften them up, opening opportunities for the expansion of Russian businesses in Europe and the United States.
Thus, another versiya of the deaths of both Litvinenko and Politkovskaya was born. Some of the “special services” veterans and others in the FSB and additional “power structures” might carry out high-profile political assassinations to cut off Putin’s Western escape route. It is perhaps no coincidence that Putin was abroad when Politkovskaya was killed (on Putin’s birthday, October 8, no less) and when Litvinenko finally succumbed to radiation poisoning. Putin faced a largely hostile Western press and was clearly irritated, disturbed, and angered by the barrage of questions he faced regarding both incidents. It is clear that Russia’s image has been severely damaged by the deaths of both Politkovskaya and Litvinenko.
Back in Moscow, Putin’s advisors are reportedly telling him that the CIA, BAB, Yukos remnants, and other enemies are behind the killings. In this story, the aim is to anger Putin further, turn him against the West, and direct him toward the places where Sechin and friends have business partners: China, India, Iran, and Venezuela, for example. The point being, of course, that Russia does not need the West: She can sell her oil and gas to the Chinese and Indians, and she can earn billions building nuclear facilities in Iran and selling weapons to Venezuela. And so, if this story is to be believed, Putin will take defensive steps that drive a wedge between him and the West, isolating Russia and raising the same questions for Putin that Sechin and company have been asking: How can one be certain that the future is secure? What if the successor—perhaps First Vice Premier Dmitri Medvedev; perhaps Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov; maybe someone else—decides to play his own game? And there is no consensus about a successor, with the entourage divided and the infighting increasingly chaotic. Perhaps the best way for Putin to secure his immediate future is to change the constitution and remain president after 2008, buying time to find a long-term solution to his security problem.
And here is a versiya with a twist: Those backing Medvedev as successor might be behind Litvinenko’s and Politkovskaya’s deaths—or, at least, they might be trying to take advantage of them, telling Putin that Sechin did the killings and should be fired.
I endorse none of these versions, though I tend to believe that Putin would not want to spoil relations with the West and did not order Litvinenko’s or Politkovskaya’s deaths. I am inclined to think that he is being set up. Both his enemies and some of his “friends” have reason to play such a game. But we must keep a few things in mind: Russia is ruled by the heart, not by the head. Emotions, passions, personal attachments—not logic or reason—are the things that drive events. This can be a good thing, and it can be a bad thing. (I suppose that one could say that this is true of all mankind to one degree or another, and I would not disagree with that.) As a colleague put it to me once upon a time, Russians do not believe in evidence. Every conspiracy theory will have its supporters, and no typical Russian will believe that these are all separate incidents with their own causes. Russians also, perhaps partly because of hard experience, do not believe in coincidence. And if there is one thing I have learned from life, it is that people regularly do things that are apparently against their own interests.
Nothing is quite what it seems in Russia, especially in Russian politics. Perhaps the zakazchik, the person who ordered Politkovskaya’s murder, was a different person from the zakazchik behind Litvinenko’s untimely death. Once such an event has occurred, however, the versions will be spun out, the disinformation manufactured, the story massaged by the various players and their “clans,” each with his own agenda. I doubt very much that the players themselves can distinguish fact from fantasy, truth from fiction, or even know who all the other players might be. They live in a wilderness of mirrors and will act and react based on whatever foggy reflection they may discern in whichever mirror they face, further confusing those of us who have the interesting, frustrating, and sometimes depressing task of trying to answer the questions Who done it? and Why?