Thursday, March 15, 2007

This is another unpublished and polemical draft piece on what may be a systematic Kremlin campaign of murder and intimidation--but of course may just be groundless paranoia.

In a spy novel, the plot would be getting boring by now. A journalist is shot in Moscow. Then a defector is poisoned in London. Then a top American critic of the Kremlin is mysteriously shot in Washington. And another brave investigative journalist commits an unlikely 'suicide' in Moscow. Surely, all these clues point in the same direction?

But this is real life, and the result is a scary page-turner. Any of three theories could be true. Maybe the Kremlin is indeed systematically killing and intimidating its critics. Or these four casualties could be victims of a deeper plot (or plots) in Russia’s brutal, murky politics. Or it may just be a string of random events, which only the paranoid should try to hook together.

When my colleague and acquaintance Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the stairwell of her Moscow home on October 7 last year, many were quick to blame Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. After all, Anna had been one of the Russian authorities fiercest critics: a rare independent voice that highlighted the brutality and greed of the war in Chechnya. That was rare in Russia’s media, for the most part cowed and sycophantic.

Even rarer: she was one of very few Russian journalists with a world reputation, able to place an article in a big international newspaper. Shooting her would not only silence her, but warn off any other Russians tempted to ‘defame’ their country abroad. The Kremlin’s defenders were quick to point out that the shooting was a PR disaster for Russia— hardly a sensible tactic given Mr Putin’s repeated desire to see his country treated as ‘normal’.

Perhaps Ms Politkovskaya had fallen out with one of her Chechen friends, they suggested. Mr Putin kindly described her influence in Russia as 'marginal'. Russian diplomats even said that she had been killed by enemies of Russia abroad—an unsubtly coded reference to Boris Berezovsky, a billionaire tycoon who helped Mr Putin to power, but now flits in armoured £200,000 Maybach limousines between a hi-tech Mayfair eyrie and a well-guarded Surrey mansion.

Then Mr Berezovsky’s protégé Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from Russia’s feared internal security service, the FSB, was poisoned in London. He, his family and his friends blamed the Kremlin. The fantastically expensive and sophisticated murder weapon—the rare radioactive element Polonium—meant that the assassination must have been sanctioned at the highest level by the Kremlin. The suspects fled to Russia; British detectives’ inquiries have bogged down in the infamous bureaucracy there.

But again, Russia’s defenders were quick to put the contrary view. Mr Litvinenko’s dodgy business dealings had gone sour. Maybe Mr Berezovsky had had him murdered to cast Mr Putin in a bad light.

More subtle theories surfaced too: hardliners in the Kremlin trying to provoke a crisis in relations with the West, in order that Mr Putin would give up his relatively moderate stance, and perhaps agree to suspend the constitution and stay in power when his term of office ends in 2008. By the standards of modern Kremlinology, that counted as a reasonably sane hypothesis. But for the Kremlin critics, the explanation was clear. “The Politkovskaya murder was a warning to Putin’s critics at home. The Litvinenko murder was a warning to defectors everywhere. The next casualty will be a foreigner,” explained one of my oldest friends in Moscow (nervously insisting that she should not be quoted).

Many in the west saw it the same way. Paul Joyal, an old friend of mine with a long background in American intelligence, is one of the most hawkish Putin-watchers in Washington DC. A wily, sometimes conspiratorial figure, he told an American television programme last month: “A message has been communicated to anyone who wants to speak out against the Kremlin: ‘If you do, no matter who you are, where you are, we will find you, and we will silence you -- in the most horrible way possible’.”

Four days after giving the interview, he was shot in the stomach and critically injured near his home in Maryland. American law-enforcement officials initially reckoned it was just street crime, saying that Mr Joyal’s wallet and briefcase had been stolen in what might have been a bungled car-jacking. But now it turns out that his wallet was untouched.

Merely sinister coincidence? Or something worse? Mark Galeotti, an expert in Russian intelligence and organised crime at Keele University, says it is entirely plausible that Russian agents could arrange through criminal contacts to use local hoodlums to warn someone off in this way, especially for an unsophisticated job where no murder was involved.

Mr Joyal’s friends, colleagues and family are all steering away from any conspiracy theory for the shooting at this stage. But the latest death, in Moscow, is much harder to dismiss as mere happenstance. Ivan Safronov, 51, a retired colonel turned journalist for the Kommersant daily, was an authority on the failings of the Russian military. He had excellent sources, and wrote unsparing critiques of the technological and other failures of Russia’s military. He highlighted, for example, failure of the new Bulava submarine-launched intercontinental missile to work properly.

That infuriated the Kremlin, and the ex-KGB men who now infest every important institution in Russia. In their eyes, criticism is disloyalty; disloyalty is treachery, and the penalty for treachery is death. Mr Safronov was reported dead the day after apparently falling from a fourth floor window of his apartment. Those who knew him find the idea of suicide utterly unlikely.

It is all too easy to stitch these events together. The Soviet Union had no compunction in bumping its enemies off. Sometimes it was brutal, such as the ice-pick that smashed the head of Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s revolutionary rival, in 1936. Sometimes it was high-tech, such as the poisoned umbrella on Waterloo Bridge that ended the life of brave Georgi Markov, an émigré Bulgarian broadcaster, in 1976. Sometimes enemies of the evil empire, or their loved ones, succumbed to mysterious deaths from rare forms of cancer.

Today, it’s not just that the KGB’s old habits of disinformation and mischief-making are still with us, but that the organisation's tentacles reach as far and formidably as ever. And who better to supervise this than the taciturn, foulmouthed KGB Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (retd.)? Whereas during the days of the Cold War the KGB was an arm of the Soviet state, with Putin's ascent to power the KGB effectively took over the state.

The result is ‘Kremlin, Inc’, which combines the greed of business with the ruthlessness of espionage and the bluster of a superpower. Even in supposedly democratic Russia, the government has recently gained the legal right to order the death of ‘terrorists’ anywhere in the world, as Chechen émigré figures have found to their cost.

Russian officialdom habitually uses legal means to hassle opposition figures as ‘extremists’; it is easy to imagine them similarly stretching the definition to turn their critics into enemies of Russia, deserving only death.

Assume, then, that the Kremlin wants to silence its critics, but keep its reputation at home and abroad. What better way than to mix mayhem and muddle in this way? Each of the four attacks sends a powerful signal to those whom it wants to intimidate, but none of them points directly back to the Kremlin. Each can be explained some other way: as a business grudge, a stunt pulled by Russia’s mysterious enemies, a random bit of street crime, a personal tragedy, terrorism.

Whatever the explanation, there is enough ambiguity that most outsiders, their vision perhaps blurred by ignorance and wishful thinking, would be slow to draw the terrifying conclusion: that the worlds largest country is in the hands of people who murder anyone that stands in their way. Maddeningly, the facts do not, yet, paint a clear enough pattern to support it. People acting with Mr Putins blessing are certainly the likely culprits in Ms Politkovskaya’s and Mr Litvinenko’s death, although their exact motives can only be guessed at.

But, sadly, it is easy enough to have journalists killed in Russia for Mr Safronov’s death to have other explanations. And as a former correspondent in Washington, I well remember the level of street crime, and the number of hawkish ex-spooks. The two phenomena were bound to coincide sometime.

One thing is clear: critics of the Kremlin, in Russia and outside, are nervous as never before. If Mr Joyal’s shooting turns out to be more than a mere mugging, the alarm bells ringing in their ears will be deafening—not just in America, but here in London too. But who else will hear them?

1 comment:

Tom Adshead said...

Given the chaotic and inflexible nature of most organisations in Russia, I always lean prefer "cock-up" theories to conspiracy theories. For all the mythology about Russians being great chess players, I've yet to see any Russian leader or state body execute an elegant strategic plan. It's all tactics and responding to events. Putin's promise was that he had a strategy for Russia, but in the end, he descended into tactics, and became a captive of his executive.

I firmly believe that most killings in Russia happen for financial reasons. I believe that Litvinenko was killed because he threatened to release information about someone in Russia making money illegally, possibly from Yukos, possibly from the current elite. I would ascribe Safranov's death similarly - there is huge graft in the military procurement process, where Putin has been extremely active in putting his own people in place. These people would think nothing of removing a turbulent journalist. I also believe that Politkovskaya was killed because she threatened to release information about the massive theft relating to the rebuilding of Chechnya.

It's not an attack on the free press per se. In my view the press seems to have got more active in reporting graft recently, and we are seeing a lot more local politicians being arrested, but this may be a campaign ahead of the elections. True, most of it is in the print media, and TV news is very Soviet in its approach - anything bad that happens in Russia will normally be matched by a report of something bad in the West. But the main facts are reported, and there are talk shows where most sides of the question get aired.

The scandal of course is that the regime has no mechanism in place to punish the people who are killing journalists, be it for ideological or financial reasons. The speed with which Khodorkovsky was prosecuted contrasts dramatically with the time taken for many high profile murder investigations.

My point is that if we are compare the systems to means of locomotion, then the Soviet political system was a square wheel - completely ineffective, and doomed to self-destruct. The current Russian political system is a cartwheel - primitive and slow, but functional. And it's being compared to modern run-flat radials, or indeed to theoretically perfect tyres which don't exist anywhere else.