Litvinenko’s Murder, or Кто кого

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.