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Putin's Poison? By: Ariel Cohen
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The radioactive poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko and the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce opponent of Vladimir Putin’s on the Russian president’s birthday, are mysteries of great importance for the West – and Russia. They need to be solved, and the sooner the better.

Is Vladimir Putin out of control – or has he lost control? Are his secret police taking people out on his orders, or is he being framed by his own people? And if so, why?


Litvinenko had a murky past. A Federal Security Service (FSB) colonel who worked with Putin when he headed the service, Litvinenko later accused his former colleagues of planning to murder his patron, Boris Berezovsky.  Putin partially owed his rise to Berezovsky, a billionaire who was the in-house financier and eminence grise of President Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle.  However, after Putin took office, he marginalizåd Berezovsky and several other wealthy oligarchs from the Yeltsin era.


In 1999 Litvinenko accused Putin and his former FSB  colleagues of blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow to justify the start of the Second Chechen war, when the bombings were blamed on Chechen terrorists.


In 2001, Litvinenko fled Russia and settled in Great Britain, becoming a citizen this past October. Shortly before his death, Litvinenko accused Putin of ordering the murder of Politkovskaya. 


According to the Times of London, Litvinenko recently visited one of the former owners of the YUKOS oil company, who is hiding in Israel. Litvinenko reportedly transferred to him evidence of alleged illegal acts carried out in the takeover of Yukos by the Russian government.  This evidence is going to be transferred to Scotland Yard as part of its investigation into Livinenko’s poisoning.


The Litvinenko and Politkovskaya murders make Putin and Putin’s Russia look truly horrible. Litvinenko is the latest in a long list of political murder victims.

Since the 1990s, political and business murders have been plaguing Russia’s post-communist history.


Journalists have been targeted as often as politicians and lead the list of victims. In 1995, Vlad Listyev, a popular TV host, was gunned down. Dmitry Kholodov, an investigative reporter, who was looking into corruption in the Russian military, was blown to smithereens by a paratroop intelligence officer.


My friend Galina Starovoitova, a democratic Duma deputy, was gunned down at the entrance to her home in St. Petersburg. I also knew Yuri Shchekochikhin, a liberal opposition editor of Novaya Gazeta, who is rumored to have been poisoned. Duma member Sergey Yushenkov, who, like Litvinenko, was an ally of exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, was mysteriously gunned down by a colleague.


Last year, Paul Khlebnikov, the Russian-American editor of Forbes Russia, was murdered, and this year, top banking regulator Andrey Kozlov, Politkovskaya, and Litvinenko were all killed.


Russian secret service agents also took out Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, former president of the self-proclaimed independent Chechen Republic, in February 2004. Yandarbiev was in exile in Qatar at the time.


In the past, the Soviet spy services  “took care of” many political opponents, including Stalin’s arch-enemy Leon Trotsky in 1940 and Stepan Bandera, leader of the anti-Soviet Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), who was killed by the KGB in Germany in 1959.


The Litvinenko murder is particularly mysterious – and important. Has Russia entirely left the Western orbit, reverting to its old Soviet era, Stalinist practices? Is Vladimir Putin, approaching the end of his two terms in office and thinking of a new career, interested in being viewed around the world as having blood on his hands?


Or something else is afoot? I have met Putin four times in the last three years. He is tough and smart, and perhaps ruthless, but he is not stupid. He understands that murders like these may make him look bloodthirsty and make Russia appear barbaric. And if he did not order these killings, they still make Russia look out-of-control, while Putin looks weak.


There are rumors in Moscow that an organization of ex-KGB officers, called Honor and Dignity, may be behind at least some of the recent murders, but that looks like it may be a red herring of plausible deniability being floated in the Moscow River. Or if the story is true, it surely brings back the specter of the Weimar Republic, where ultra-nationalist and Nazi veteran groups killed communists and social democrats, such as the Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau, clearing the path for the Nazi takeover.


It is also possible that the murders are linked to the power struggle afoot in Moscow between siloviki – the “men of power,” including many in the FSB and Presidential Administration, who do not want a changing of the guard in the Kremlin, and the mostly the non-uniformed Putin associates from St. Petersburg around Vice Premier Dmitry Medvedev, currently heir apparent to the presidency.


Whatever the motives are, Russia is too important to ignore these killings. The sinister secret staring us in the face refuses to go away.  We need the truth.


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Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Sarah and Douglas Allison Center of the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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