Did Putin approve of Litvinenko Assassination ?

Reuters. Russia’s Putin probably approved London murder of ex-KGB agent Litvinenko: UK inquiry.

This is the conclusion of British judge Robert Owen.  I would differ only by the substitution of “substantial possibility” for Owen’s “probably.” But Owen has access to classified information, possibly human intelligence, about the series of steps that would have to be taken in order to release polonium to the probable killers.

Polonium has a half-life of 138 days. It  cannot be stored for even a half decade and retain potency. It has to be made fresh. Although all nuclear reactors create polonium by neutron activation of bismuth, there is no practical way to extract it, unless the reactor is cooled by liquid lead/bismuth alloy. The polonium is then extracted from the coolant.  There is a single operating polonium production facility in the world, the Avanguard plant, in Russia. The British estimate of the amount of polonium used to kill Litvinenko is 26.5 micrograms, a huge amount for the job.

In Putin’s defense (everybody is entitled to a lawyer!), Yasir Arafat was killed in 2004 by a similarly large amount of polonium. (That Arafat was poisoned with polonium is my personal conclusion, a legacy of participation in the IARPA funded project, “Forecasting World Events.”) Since there does not appear to be an obvious motive for Putin to provide polonium to Arafat’s killers, it is likely to have been obtained on the black market.

Whether there is still a black market in polonium, or whether there is a laxity of controls that would exculpate Putin,  is one of those questions that bedevils the fixation of blame. Russia is one of several  countries that run assassination squads on foreign soils. Currently, they are looking for Colonel Shcherbakov ,  the betrayer of Anna Chapman. Referring to Leon Trotksy, a Kremlin spokesman was quoted as saying “We have already sent a Mercader.”

But the accused killer, Andrei Lugovoy, must have watched too many Dr. Evil movies. In 2010, he sent a T-shirt to Boris Berezovsky with the cute silk screening, “POLONIUM-210 CSKA LONDON, HAMBURG To Be Continued”, with more writing on the back reading: “CSKA Moscow Nuclear Death Is Knocking Your Door”

So four years after the death of Litvinenko, Lugovoy sent the above vivid threat spelling out the same method to another prospective victim.  This is not typical of an agent working for the KGB or, for that matter, any other three letter organization. It’s nonprofessional, and dangerous,  to the individual, and his collaborators. This suggests the possibility of some kind of blended truth, in which Putin either approved or looked the other way, but did not initiate. This is either excruciatingly  important or unimportant, depending upon your frame of reference.

If the frame of reference is the British courts, they are doing their job discerning the facts of the case, even if know there will be no trial. If the frame of reference is Russian, a sentence was carried out against a traitor.  There are both similarities and differences with U.S. action  against terrorists who are U.S. nationals, on foreign soil. Anwar al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  He died in Yemen in 2011, by Hellfire missile. U.S. readers of this blog probably share my relief at his demise. But there was no trial for Awaki. Perhaps someday this will be regretted, but I don’t see it now.

As Awaki was a serious threat to the U.S., so Litvinenko may have been regarded as a threat to the Russian state.  An appropriate response to that would be, “but Litvinenko had dirt on Putin.” The logical counter would then be, “but then why did Litvinenko make so many enemies?” Part of it is that, like some other countries that are in intermediate states of evolution, Putin’s role somewhat resembles a sovereign, about which Louis XIV said, “I am the state.” In this frame of mind, an attack on Putin is an attack on the state.

That covers the emotional state of mind. But there are several specifics:

  • Litvinenko threatened to disclose (to the extent that he knew) how Putin’s money was hidden in the west. The existence of a slush fund, controlled by Putin, and immune to western sanction, is crucial to the survival of the Russian state.  A paper on Academia.edu, Putin’s Character and the Intersection of Russia , explains.
  • As a corollary, Litvinenko threatened to disclose Putin’s links with organized crime. In the west, this seems horrible. But when Putin came to power, Russia’s society had disintegrated to the extent that the only remaining organic force was organized crime. Putin could only govern by  co-opting criminal elements. They are still there. A stronger state diminishes them; a weaker one empowers them.  Putin is the current guarantor of a strong state.
  • Litvinentko claimed that the FSB committed the Russian apartment bombings as a false flag operation, in order to justify a new Chechnya war.  It is possible that one or more FSB employees, specifically Vladimir Romanovich, were involved. If so, he was punished. He met his end by “accident”  in Cyprus, a favorite spot for liquidations.  But the prevailing opinion of investigators with western affiliations is that the FSB was not involved as an institution. The claim, as an assault on a patriotic institution, made a lot of Russians mad. Their patriotism, not ours.
  • Litvinenko developed an increasing closeness to British intelligence, though the fact of actual collaboration is not publicly known. It would be treason to the Russians.

But rather than get riled over the fate of Litvinenko on British soil, one could simply rue that in Russia

  • The free press was destroyed, and so many reporters murdered.
  • A fledgling democracy was demolished, without a decent attempt  to turn it to good account.
  • The focus of Russia has turned outwards, when it is inwardly so weak.
  • The choice  of a conservative, religious ethos for the new Russia is one which so many creative Russians can’t live with or in.  Without full engagement of the best and the brightest, there is no way forward.
  • In deference to Putin’s dilemma, without the church, there may be no counter to organized crime, and therefore, no way forward.

Perhaps Putin’s concern for the preservation of Russia against threats, both internal and external, could have been more balanced with respect to the above.

Returning to our frame of reference, the U.S. has had a number of post-war traitors. One of them, ex C.I.A. agent Edward Lee Howard, made it to Russia, where he was feted as a hero and provided with luxuries for the service of betraying many U.S. spies to their deaths. How it must have rankled retired members of the intelligence community — and their friends, who had served their country with honor. They probably chewed on it at the club house after golf, over rounds of beer, week after week, month after month, for years.

At the tender age of 50, Howard died, falling down the stairs at his dacha  in Zhukovka. Quoting, “Exactly how Howard, 50, died July 12 was not divulged by U.S. or Russian authorities, though a U.S. Embassy spokesman said there was no evidence of foul play.”

It was probably nothing. People fall down the stairs all the time.

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