Mikhail Lesin Hit Part 2 – the Motive & Grading the Theory

Let us pretend that we have established that Lesin was assassinated, but have no idea who did it. We would do what all detectives did before DNA testing: look for motive.

Lesin was a former advisor to Putin. Almost by definition, he possessed knowledge exceedingly dangerous to individuals in the Kremlin. The Daily Mail claims a Panama leak connection: “Murdered over money? Panama leaks reveal that Putin’s former media chief who died in a Washington hotel room was linked to offshore company ‘used by the Russian leader'”.

Quoting another Daily Mail article “Yet some 16 months earlier, Senator Roger Wicker had called for a Justice Department probe into whether Lesin was engaged in money laundering.” Quoting further,

Former Russian vice premier Alfred Kokh openly asked this week whether Lesin could have been murdered – like a new Alexander Litvinenko, a Putin foe poisoned by radioactive polonium poured into his tea in London nine years ago.

Kokh spoke amid fears in Moscow that he was ready to trade his inside knowledge of the Putin court for an end to any American investigation into the propriety of his wealth.

Was Lesin of such character that he could have provided assurances to the Kremlin that he would not turn coat?

  • He was a heavy drinker.
  • He was prone to antisocial outbursts.
  • He was in Washington, which according to Kokh is a very boring town. Quoting The Daily Mail, “Questioning why Putin’s former media manipulator was in the US capital, Kokh asked in an online posting: ‘What’s so interesting about Washington? I’ve been there quite a few times. ‘And I’d answer – nothing. At all. It’s a boring city without a touch of spice.'”

Since the Russians possess more sophisticated means of assassination, such as nominally undetectable poisons, why was Lesin  beaten? And it has been asked, if Lesin was murdered, why in Washington and not in Russia, where he had recently been? Lesin had been exporting his wealth, removing an important lever of behavioral control. A compatible answer is that it was intended to be a visceral warning to all expatriates: Russia can reach you.

It may have been technologically sophisticated. Since the full knowledge of the coroner is not available in open source, only speculative examples can be given.  Lesin’s encounter with an assassin could have been not inside his room, but elsewhere. A subdural hematoma, caused  by a hypothetical  gadget, could produce an immediate feeling of only mild illness, allowing Lesin to retreat to his room. But such hematomas, untreated, tend to cause death within hours.

The theory incorporates a number of reasoning techniques, which sum to what is called a suspicion. Productive use of this combination of techniques has not been formalized, and it should be. The ability of the individual to execute a theory of this type varies widely. Dysrationalia is common. But it seems that the construction of  a theory of suspicion has these characteristics:

  • Postulates  of low quality, so that individually, they have a high probability of being false.
  • High internal consistency.
  • A  structure that results in a theory with a higher level of confidence than isolated consideration of the individual postulates. It occurs when consistency implies dependency.  Part of this is analogous to Feynman diagrams of physics: The chance of arriving at a state is the sum of all the ways of getting there.
  • Global clauses that, while not linked in any specific way, bias the probabilities. Example:  “They’ve done this sort of thing before.”

If I were not a game player, and were asked to assign a probability to the truth of the theory, I might say slightly better than chance. But I have been a game player, in the IARPA program/competition FWE (Forcasting World Events), in 2013-2014. The game was so constructed that to improve one’s score, one had to assign a probability, either positive or negative, higher than one’s cumulative average. Mine was 80.535, with a rank of #9/4460. To use this question to improve my score, I would have to assign high certainty to my prediction.

In the IARPA/FWE frame of mind, how would I grade the theory that this hit came from the Kremlin? Better than 90%. Perhaps you would then ask, what is my estimate that Vladimir Putin approved the killing? Solely to maintain my score, I would exercise the other FWE option, to decline the question.

The dynamics of the Kremlin are far more complex than one might suppose. There is a popular desire to use events such as these for political purposes. The event of Lesin’s death/murder is vulnerable to this, because so little is known, at least in open sources, about the inner workings of the Kremlin. Only preciously obtained human intelligence can reveal it. What is revealed is guarded with the strictest secrecy, or the sources would not last long.

Putin’s rule is a mixture of persuasion, compulsion, and consent of the ruled. Every mold of rule has different implications. If we decide he is a tribal chieftain, then he is surrounded by a circle of confidants and confidence. If it should break down, the chieftain is deposed. The chieftain is obliged to protect. If someone demands protection, what does he do?

So the question posed as, “Did Putin order the killing of Lesin?” is the wrong question. The correct question is to understand the entire process of decision, of who was pressured, who was threatened, who encouraged, and who acquiesced. And although it has never been feasible to stop assassinations on American soil, we want to understand the execution.

We want to understand these things because knowledge is power, not mere political capital.

Mikhail Lesin, a Kremlin Hit, a Theory, Part 1

Mikhail Lesin, former Kremlin advisor, was found dead in a Washington hotel room in November. The determinations of the Washington medical examiner were a long time coming. Quoting NBC News,

Autopsy results show that he died from “blunt-force injuries of the head,” according to a joint statement Thursday from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported by NBC Washington, but the exact manner of death was undetermined. Also contributing to his death were “blunt-force injuries of the neck, torso, upper extremities and lower extremities,” the statement said.

In street lingo, this says he was beaten to death. But quoting the Washington Post, “Dustin Sternbeck, the D.C. police department’s chief spokesman, said the case remains under investigation. He would not say whether the medical examiner’s ruling means a crime may have been committed.”

If Mikhail Lesin were a sufficiently interesting person, if he were more a good guy than he was, his somewhat mysterious death would spawn a frenzy of conspiracy theories. The error of the conspiracist is to assume that anything that possibly happened, happened. But the event is interesting enough to spawn a theory. So that I don’t have to put a qualifier in each sentence, please assume that in what follows, it is already there. What follows is not a deduction of facts, but a theory with the virtues of two kinds of consistency: with the facts, and of internal logic.

So  let us proceed. The language and conclusions are unusually cautious. The street interpretation of the coroner’s report is that Lesin was beaten to death.  Let us not hasten to conclude that the coroner’s office held back for political reasons. Forensics is an exceedingly developed science.  The corpse has doubtless been examined in almost microscopic detail, characterizing tissue injuries and post-death flows of blood. The picture of foul play is challenged by the absence of signs of forced entry. So to conclude that Lesin was beaten to death, that process, with all the physical postures Lesin assumed, as well as those of the hypothetical attacker, would need to be rigorously reconstructed.

If the reconstruction doesn’t cohere,  all that’s left are the the bruises, but not the order in which they occurred, or what Lesin and the possible assailant were doing. We could conclude that Lesin danced around his hotel room, banging into things until he was dead. This, of course, is ridiculous.

Because it is ridiculous, the coroner’s indecision has meaning. Choices:

  • There is genuine confusion in the coroner’s office. Non supportive to the theory. 
  • There is  enough to conclude that Lesin was beaten to death, but not enough to reconstruct the crime. Non supportive to the theory. 
  •  The scene has been reconstructed, but deliberately not disclosed. An interesting reason exists. Suppose it was a Kremlin job.  Regardless of whether the job was executed by a Russian state employee, or a freelancer, the Russians would want a report card. A coroner’s reconstruction of the crime serves as that report card, enabling the perpetrators to refine their techniques. Supportive to the theory. 

If you’re frustrated with the coroner’s report, so are the Russians. Quoting NBC,

The Russian embassy in the United States has repeatedly requested through diplomatic channels concerning the investigation into the death of a Russian citizen,” spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said…The American side did not provide us with any substantial information. We’re awaiting explanations and official information from Washington concerning the progress of the investigation.

And this is congruent with suspicion of the Russians.

The KGB had great expertise in the art of undetectable murder. Their talents have not been lost. The same goes for undetectable entry into the hotel room. In spy parlance, this is called a “black bag job.” We are almost done with the meager evidence of an actual crime. But there is one more thing.  Quoting the NY Times, “And then, in November, he was found in a hotel here in Washington, the victim, the Russian state media he had helped build said, of a heart attack.” No domestic U.S. report, from EMT responders, cops, or the coroner’s office offers it as a cause. So why did Russian media report this? There are two possibilities:

Next: Motive, and Grading the Theory.



Replacing Assad, Part 3

In White House Years, Henry Kissinger writes, “If history teaches us anything, it is that there can be no peace without equilibrium and no justice without restraint.” The second clause was abided by the surrender terms offered by Ulyesses S. Grant to Robert E. Lee at Appomatox, when the surrendered were permitted to keep their horses: and their liberty:

“…The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.”

No positive reference of the second clause, justice without restraint, is possible in connection with Syria. For although the Confederacy was fighting for an ignoble cause, the times allowed this civility. Total war had disappeared sometime after the expulsion of the Moors from Europe, to be replaced by the incredibly polite Cabinet Wars, The first reappearance of total war may have been the Paris Commune.

The West has evolved to a state that cannot countenance total war, but intervenes in the Middle East, where most of the belligerents do. Decades of control-by-massacre make the reconstitution of Syria, in which the minority Alawites have held power for 47 years, impossible. So we are left in search of the first clause, equilibrium.

The physical sciences and social phenomena have been borrowing words from each other for a long  time. In science, “stable” means a physical situation that doesn’t change for a long time. The etymological root is the place where a horse is kept, where it can’t run away. The desire inspired Plato’s Republic, a method to freeze a society in an optimal state.

Equilibrium is also such a term. It refers to a system where changes occur, with other changes occurring at just the right rate to undo them. For example, water evaporates from lakes, rivers, and oceans, and glaciers melt, but it should rain or snow at just the rate so that they are exactly replenished. To the extent that this is not true, Earth risks ruin from climate change. The EU and the U.S. are social analogs, attempts to preserve structure in the long term by allowing and encouraging change in the short term.

So stability and equilibrium are different. Stability is sought by diplomats and dictators, because it is simple to describe. If achieved, a hypothetical occurrence, nothing changes. Equilibrium is much more complicated, occurring spontaneously, each instance perhaps sui generis. But with the collapse of the colonial era, the Third World came into being mostly as inherently unstable states. Chemical explosives are the physical analogy. An explosive contains both the substance that burns, and the oxidizer that burns it, in intimate combination. In an artificially constituted polity of elements that hate each other, all it takes is the “spark”, for social conflagration, expressions borrowed from physics and chemistry. Arab Spring provides some recent examples.

The Middle East is now dotted with states created by diplomats out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire. All of them have failed, except for Jordan which has squeaked by, and Egypt, which benefits from a prior existence. Saudi Arabia is an indigenous creation, although it incorporates the former Ottoman possession of Hejaz. Iran, never an Ottoman possession, has been an indigenous creation for almost a millennium. To jump centuries of social evolution and solve the Syria conundrum, it is popular to promote “elections”, which, if held, would be interpreted by the winner to mean, “winner takes all.” Elections are the novel feature of equilibrium states.

So we need a new form of stability or equilibrium, whichever is possible, something not tried before by diplomacy. Perhaps we should allow the same thought that struck Kissinger. On page 54 of White House Years, he wrote, “I had written a book and several articles on the diplomacy of the 19th century. My motive was to understand the processes by which Europe after the Napoleonic wars established a peace that lasted a century;…”. He goes on to write that he never thought such knowledge could be literally useful in the present. And in fact, balance of power has not been part of the modern diplomat’s toolbox of statecraft. Simpler means with utopian gloss are more popular. On page 55, Kissinger writes, “He [my note: the statesman] rarely can reach his goal except in stages; any partial step is inherently morally imperfect and yet morality cannot be approximated without it.”

Assad’s Sunni opponents, whose lineage traces back to the Baathist secularism of the 60’s, various recondite quasi-western ideas, and various degrees of Islam, have been in conflict since the monarchy was deposed in 1958. If Assad’s Alawites had never seized power, there is a more than decent chance that conflict of similar intensity would now exist, with different names and different actors. The current trajectory may lead to something similar, with peripheral regions ruled by warlords, permeable to the same radical influences that gave birth to ISIL.

There is an urgent need to unify the opposition. A unified opposition has the potential of evolution towards a pluralistic society. Paradoxically, nothing works for this as well as a good enemy. External enemies have been the grist of every nation-building event, and remain a popular political staple. A reduced Alawite Syria, encompassing Latakia and perhaps Damascus, fits the role.

This is a balance-of-power solution to the statecraft problem. In isolation, it has an immoral sense about it. But in implementation, it would be just a piece of a solution. It corresponds to a geographic partition constrained by economic and defensive viability. There might be little to distinguish from more conventional solutions that partition, except for one thing. Each of the new states must be a client to one of the traditional patrons, the U.S. and Russia. And contrary to the former middle east rivalry, those patrons must work for the mutual benefit of the clients, rather than use them as proxies for their own conflict.

A major part of the problem, Assad now becomes a major part of the solution. Questions to mull are:

  • Does a balance-of-power solution to the Syria crisis offer a way to reduce the combustibility of the region?
  • Does it support the goal of having every square inch occupied by states that would exclude non-state actors, ie., terrorism?
  • Can it be implemented in the face of the condemnation that would heap on such a complex and apparently ambiguous strategy?
  • Does it offer the possibility of pacific evolution?
  • Is it sufficiently moral?
  • Would the Russians buy in to an Alawite Syria comprised of somewhat less than the Alawites have tenuously gained, but cannot hold without Russian airpower?

Think about this. I will too.