The Litvinenko Obsession

The English language press is obsessed with the who, what, where, when, why, and how of Alexander Litvinenko’s death. A Google news search turns up thousands of articles, whether they are original compositions or reprints of syndicated reports. And with that the web of connections between Litvinenko and the numerous players in the game of Russian politics grows wider. The question is how wide does it grow and how do we separate the real players from the wannabes and those simply guilty by association?

Take for example these few reports. There is the apparent “Yukos connection,” which I mentioned in an earlier post. Except that now, it is generating speculation that Litvinenko was an Israeli double agent, “who sold trade secrets to different parties in and outside Russia, among them some of the Russian oligarchs living in exile in the West.” Then there is the “Chechen connection.” Relatives of Aslan Maskhadov stated on their website that Litvinenko was a “brother, Muslim, [and a] famous human rights activist.” Apparently, though, not all Chechens agree. Some believe that his death, like Poltikovskaya’s, was part of a Chechen revenge killing. Litvinenko’s former commander of the FSB’s Organized Crime Division, Lieut. Col. Alexander Gusak told Kommersant that the murder was possibly linked to the torture of a Chechen militant in Dagestan in 1996. “That evening, when I wanted to interrogate the Chechen, they told me that Litvinenko supposedly tortured him to death.” Adding, that “The Chechens have blood vengeance.” Whether any of this is plausible is anyone’s guess.

Most reports directly accuse Putin. But what hasn’t yet been satisfactorily answered is what benefit does the Kremlin get from this? Yes, another critic is silenced. Yes, the Kremlin look to send a clear message to other dissidents looking to cause trouble. But let’s be real here. Litvinenko’s criticism is hardly constituted a tour de force. They criticisms are mostly ignored in Russia where they matter. In fact, it appears that within Russia, Litvinenko is viewed with much disdain or is unknown. And until news broke about his poisoning, I would gather that few westerners heard of him too. I know I didn’t.

This is why I strongly concur with Julian Evans’ take on the whole affair. In an opinion aptly titled, “The British Public is Being Taken for a Ride,” he writes, “As the case rolls on, and the media hysteria continues, more and more I feel what the situation is exposing is not the evilness of the Kremlin, but our own gullibility, the sloppiness of our media, the irresponsibility of our politicians, and the greed of our PR industry.” Evans then goes on to blast the idea that Putin ordered the murder. Similarly, the Guardian’s Tom Parfitt offers a similar deconstruction of the affair. He writes “There is not a scrap of evidence to show that the Russian president was involved. Police are hardly out of the blocks and we’re already up for some kangaroo justice.” Adding, “The idea that Litvinenko was a crusading dissident in the mould of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is risible. People who had never heard of him two weeks ago are now trumpeting his “courageous, high-profile stand against the Kremlin”. The fact is that Litvinenko was a paid employee of Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch and archenemy of Putin.”

Confused yet? I am. However, I’m sure about one thing. When looking at a tally of who is benefiting from all this, it is clear Litvinenko’s murder has brought more harm to Putin than good. Litvinenko’s accusations that the FSB carried out the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings are news again. And like right after Anna Politkovskaya’s murder, Putin faced a machine gun barrage of questions from the European media. The fact that both murders took place on the eve of the EU Summit and the Helsinki Summit has fueled speculation that the murders were well timed to undermine the Kremlin.

To make matters worse, Putin’s defense and deflections have satisfied few. Western media like the NY Times are ever so quick to point out Putin’s own KGB past, thereby implicating him as the culprit, as well as taking his cool response to indicate a cover for a sinister plot. What does the NY Times expect Putin to say? Well, it’s right there in their editorial. “How much better it would have been had Mr. Putin’s people said something like, “Let us help find out who did this outrageous thing!,” the editorial reads. Few leaders are held to similar standards. . .

So Putin is damned if he didn’t and damned if he did, making the question of who actually killed Litvinenko virtually moot. The Kremlin has taken so much heat in the last week that if it did order Litvinenko’s murder, it was an idiotic move.

I personally don’t think that Putin is that stupid. Russia is playing an interesting geopolitical game and doing it with much success. It is making itself economically indispensable across Eurasia. It now has more friends than enemies. Europe and East Asia’s future are increasingly tied with Russia’s not only for oil and gas but also as a market. This is part of Putin’s overall legacy; a legacy where Russia has reestablished itself as not only as a regional but as a global power.

This success is partly because Russia has learned well from the Cold War. In the age of globalization, hard military power bears few fruits. Chechnya is a good example of this and the lesson Putin learned is to be happy with someone else, i.e. Ramzan Kadyrov, to deal with the bloody mess. Chechnya has proved once again that little wars reveal great powers’ weaknesses.

The soft power of economics, however, can bloom an orchard and further entrench a power’s strength. Ironically, this lesson is being lost on its first and best practitioner, the United States. As the United States further sinks in the quagmire of Iraq, the world’s other great powers, the EU, Russia, and China, are doing business with each other. What was once said to be a unipolar world is now emerging as a multipolar one without a dominating center.

These are the reasons why I don’t believe Putin had Litvinenko killed and why I also think so many in the West are so apt to pointing the finger at the Kremlin. You see, Litvinenko’s murder has little to do with Litvinenko. He is merely symbolic of a greater fear that many Westerners have of an ascendant Russia. And given the legacy of Cold War thinking about Russia, its ascendancy is cast in familiar, yet thoroughly misguided terms and assumptions. Just to give a quick historical comparison, it is interesting how George Kennan’s Long Telegram (1946) still informs how many Westerners view Russia today:

At the bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted Russian rulers rather than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundations, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries.

Kennan words were the ideological basis for America’s containment policy during the Cold War. Though that era is over the need for “containment” still has currency among many journalists, intellectuals, and some policy makers. While the cry sixty years ago was communism, not pundits scream fascism with increasing ferocity. To many, the Litvinenko murder is only the latest expression this “neurotic view,” “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” and “fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies.”

However, this is not to suggest what the Kremlin is claiming, that the Litvinenko murder is part of a vast conspiracy on the part of exiles to undermine and destabilize Russia, has any more merit. All stories have their heroes and villains, and for the latter, Putin’s people point to his arch enemy, Boris Berezovsky. The are two problems with this theory. First, it suggests that Berezovsky has any sway over the Russian polity. Most view him for exactly what he is: a crook. Second, the Berezovsky theory, as with the one that suggests Putin gave the order, collapses the whole political affair into two all-powerful personalities. Politics rarely works like a chess board where the pieces move simply at the players’ whim. And powerful individuals rarely possess the power most attribute to them. If we step back and consider the string of high profile political murders, Andrei Kozlov, Anna Politkovskaya, and now Aleksandr Litvinenko, we might possibly see something larger at work.

More and more political analysts are suggesting that there is a silent war waging within Russia. It is a war between elite factions in the Russian bureaucracy, who are jostling their positions vis-?-vis Putin with the aim of influencing who will be the next president. So we have a murder here, another there. They are high profile enough to merit attention, but disparate enough to draw any direct links between them. But what these murders are supposed to provoke is rather unclear. For these factions are at present nameless, but some, as Charles Gurin explains, are either looking to force Putin into seeking a third term whether he likes it or not or in making sure they have a say in who Putin picks. The big game of Russian politics is on and to the victor goes the spoils. As Gurin states,

Other observers, however, have suggested that Litvinenko was targeted as part of a power struggle between Kremlin factions. Some analysts said the same thing about Anna Politkovskaya’s murder (Chechnya Weekly, October 12; EDM, October 23). During the November 26 broadcast of “Rossiiskaya Panorama,” a weekly political discussion program broadcast on RTVi (a satellite channel owned by the exiled oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky), Iosif Diskin, deputy chairman of the National Strategy Center, said he thought the murders of Litvinenko, Politkovskaya, and Central Bank First Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov (who was gunned down in Moscow on September 14) were linked, “coordinated,” and aimed at forcing Putin “to act in a certain way – namely, either to enter into negotiations with a certain group on the subject of the choice of a successor, or really to force him … to remain for a third term.” Diskin added: “But, at the same time, I am deeply convinced that these are people, who now, [while] having maintained strong links to the special services, no longer belong to them formally.” This group, said Diskin, is bent on “changing the political course” because it “strongly fears for its future in a post-Putin era.”

Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Research in Moscow, told the BBC: “The death of Litvinenko — and we already see this in the reaction of the British press – is a colossal blow to the reputation of Russia and the personal reputation of Putin, who can hardly be interested in that. I am inclined to believe that not only the poisoning of Litvinenko, but also the whole series of recent events in Moscow, are part of an operation to destabilize the situation and completely discredit Putin in the West in order to persuade him to go for a third term, which is the goal of influential circles within his entourage” (Kavazky Uzel, November 24). In a separate commentary, Piontkovsky speculated that Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, and Chechen special forces commander Movladi Baisarov, who was killed in Moscow on November 18 (Chechnya Weekly, November 22), were murdered by a renegade “structure inside the special services that is conducting a deadly fight for power in the Kremlin” (, November 25).

Similarly, Alexander Golts of Ezhednevny zhurnal wrote that it is “more than doubtful that Putin himself gave the order for Litvinenko’s liquidation,” given that “the harm this whole story has done to the Russian president’s reputation is too obvious.” On the other hand, some of Putin’s close associates — “officers of the special services” — for whom Putin remaining for a third term is “a matter of life in death,” had a motive to kill Litvinenko, wrote Golts. “And for this it is necessary to create a situation that would completely exclude the possibility of Putin joining the informal club of retired leaders who cheerfully travel the world, give lectures, enjoy life,” Golts wrote. “For Putin to stay on, it is necessary to bind him with blood … So it is necessary to leave as many obvious footprints leading to Russia as possible. For that, radioactive material is the most appropriate murder weapon” (, November 26).

Historically, Russia has never been good with crises of succession. Nor is it a stranger to court intrigue. Both have produced conspiracies within conspiracies, within conspiracies. Not to mention a healthy dose of folklore and myth for good measure. Are we now witnessing something similar but are too consumed with the apparent to see the real game that lies behind all of it?