Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Wilderness of Mirrors

The Times of London says:

In the murky world of Russian espionage, conspiracy theories are the commodities traded by figures like Andrei Lugovoy, the former KGB officer accused of murdering his colleague Alexander Litvinenko in London last year.

So let's join the fun. AJ Strata examines the allegations of Andrei Lugovoy who claims Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Alexander Litvinenko were working for Britain's MI6 and that Litvinenko working to recruit him. In Lugovoy's version of events, Litvinenko was killed by MI6 or Berezovsky after showing signs of instability. Like some out of control missile, Litvinenko had to be destroyed by a range safety officer to avoid causing damage. What of the Polonium 210? Lugovoy implies that MI6 used it to hit Litvinenko, presumably so that the finger would point back toward Moscow.

AJ Strata is not buying the Lugovoy story but confesses that the truth, rather than coming into closer focus, seems as elusive as ever. That ambiguity would suit Putin's book. However, let me suggest that any eventual explanation will be consistent with the one known fact: the Polonium 210 came from Russia. It will probably be consistent with the likelihood that it was part of a transaction between men -- Litvinenko and Luguvoy -- who we shall assume for the moment to have been working for somebody, though who exactly we will leave variable.

Then the scenarios consistent with that one known and one probable point will be these: 1) Litvinenko was murdered by the Kremlin using the Polonium; 2) Litvinenko was killed by the substance while acting as go-between for persons unknown; 3) Litvinenko was killed by Berezovsky or MI6 because he was an agent out of control using Russian Polonium 210 to frame the Kremlin. But in all of the scenarios, it is the Polonium which keeps thrusting itself to the fore. Let's examine each scenario in that light.

It makes little sense for the Kremlin to use this difficult-to-handle substance as an assassination method of choice. Nor would the Kremlin accrue any benefit to spotlighting the Polonium-210 as it would shine a light upon a dark corner of Russia's atomic holdings best kept in shadow. It would be similarly senseless for MI6 or even Berezovsky to employ it as an assassination tool either. In the first place, where would they get it? In the second place, MI6 would have a plethora of less exotic methods of rid themselves of Litvinenko in Britain, which was their home turf.

That leaves option number two. Litvinenko was killed accidentally or purposely by the Polonium while acting as a go-between for persons unknown. AJ Strata has speculated that Litvinenko was killed by an accidental leak while handling the "merchandise". But Luguvoy's charge that Litvinenko was an MI6 asset raises the tantalizing possibility that he was placed along the line of smuggling by British intelligence to see whence the Polonium came and where it was bound for. That would explain why British forensic pathologists knew to suspect Polonium when Litvinenko came down with mysterious poisoning symptoms which no doctor would ordinarily connect with a rare radioactive substance. If MI6 believed Jihadis or some other terrorist groups were in the market for Polonium it would be natural for them to attempt to infiltrate the smuggling network. Whoever he was working for, Litvinenko once in the middle of this dangerous transaction, would be in extreme danger. All the parties would have an incentive to kill a man who might be an infiltrator, double-agent or dirty-bomb smuggler. Whatever hat Litvinenko wore, someone would see it as black. But again, why the Polonium?

The chief argument against it being used to assassinate a man aware of its existence was that it took too long to kill him. It worked too slowly to silence him. Given that circumstance, here's my own speculative explanation. Litvinenko may have been working for MI6. He was asked to set up a buy for Polonium, in a classic buy-bust operation, to see who showed up. And the Russians showed up. But somewhere along the line he was contaminated accidentally or perhaps purposely contaminated once he was suspected of fronting for the British in a way made to look accidental by the Russians. Litvinenko died and MI6 was left with the problem of what to do with a dead agent and a bad buy-bust deal. They did the only thing left. The British took steps to blow the whole Russian Polonium-210 trade wide open by launching a high-profile public investigation and linking it back to the Kremlin. They made sure there were clues found all over Europe and that all of them pointed East. London's request for Luguvoy's extradition had no prospect of success. But it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was whether London could tie the Polonium-210 back to Moscow. If that was achieved, then any time Polonium-210 showed up again it could pinned on the Russian regime. That was what Litvinenko's death bought. From Moscow's vantage it was not enough to resist the extradition. It was also necessary to muddle the waters. What Luguvoy is trying to do is blow smoke by claiming Litvinenko was working for MI6. Maybe he was, but it also doesn't matter. The only thing that counts is that the Polonium-210 came from Russia. From Russia, but not from Russia with Love.


Blogger John J. Coupal said...

If Litvinenko were truly working for MI6, would the British government be working so hard to extradite Lugovoi from Russia to bring him to trial in Britain?

I think not.

Russia will have to come up with a better excuse than that to refuse Lugovoi's extradition.

5/31/2007 03:49:00 AM  
Blogger David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 05/31/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

5/31/2007 07:55:00 AM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

Apparently most of the commercial Polonium in the world comes from Russia. They make it and sell it. Hardly anyone else does.

I don't think it necessarily points to the Russians. Maybe it was easier for them to get their hands on it, but anyone could do so. It's like saying he died from eating poisoned Beluga caviar.

5/31/2007 08:01:00 AM  
Blogger Aristides said...

Some more facts (from Wiki):

In 1987 Lugovoi joined the KGB's 9th directorate.

Ninth Directorate (Guards) (later the KGB Protection Service) — 40,000-man uniformed guard force providing bodyguard services to the principal CPSU leaders (and families) and major Soviet government facilities (including nuclear-weapons stocks).

The Ninth Directorate also operates Moscow's VIP Subway system and the "secure government telephone system linking high-level government and CPSU officers." It wouldn't be too difficult for Lugovoi to coordinate with co-conspirators in charge of nuclear-weapons stocks. He was the head of security for Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers. He had access to secure channels and secret transportation. And he had some really powerful friends:

After 1996, Lugovoi was "head of security at the private television company ORT, then owned by now fugitive tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Badri Patarkatsishvili," the same Berezovsky that Lugovoi now accuses:

On May 31, 2007 Lugovoi held a news conference at which he accused MI6 of attempting to recruit him and blamed either MI6, the Russian mafia, or fugitive Kremlin opponent Boris Berezovsky for the killing.


In 2001 Lugovoi was arrested and charged with organizing the escape of Nikolai Glushkov

Glushkov "was arrested in 2000 by Russian authorities on fraud charges, being seriously ill. He is a close ally of the Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky."


Georgian tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili described Lugovoi as a "close friend" with whom he had been working for 13 years. He said he hoped Lugovoi was innocent, but added that there is "no such thing as a former KGB agent".

In other words, Patarkatsishvili has no problem insinuating Lugovoi's guilt, and the Kremlin's.

On 5 February 2007 Boris Berezovsky told the BBC that on his deathbed, Litvinenko said that Lugovoi was responsible for his poisoning.

More grist:

Putin illegally visiting a villa in Spain belonging to Berezovsky on up to five different occasions in 1999.

In recent years, Berezovsky has gone into business with Neil Bush, the younger brother of U.S. President George W. Bush. Berezovsky has been an investor in Bush's Ignite! Learning, an educational software corporation, since at least 2003. In 2005, Neil Bush met with Berezovsky in Latvia, causing tension with Russia due to Berezovsky's fugitive status. Neil Bush has also been seen in Berezovsky's box at the Emirates Stadium, the home of British soccer club Arsenal F.C., for a game.

In January 2006, Berezovsky stated in an interview to a Moscow based radio station that he was working on overthrowing the administration of Vladimir Putin by force. In November 2006, Berezovsky accused Putin of ordering the poisoning of FSB defector and fellow dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who also lived in exile in the UK. The two were close associates. Berezovsky said he had no doubts that Russian authorities were behind the poisoning.

April 13, 2007: "We need to use force to change this regime," he said. "It isn't possible to change this regime through democratic means. There can be no change without force, pressure." Asked if he was effectively fomenting a revolution, he said: "You are absolutely correct."

He also admitted that during the last six years he struggled much to "destroy the positive image of Putin" and tried to portray him whenever possible as a dangerously anti-democratic figure.

One last thing which may or may not be important: Lugovoi's company Pershin is involved in private security, soft drinks and wine.

Polonium was subsequently found in a fourth-floor room and in a cup in the Pine Bar at the hotel. That's where the poisoning presumably took place. "Since this original assessment, however, a highly contaminated tea cup has been identified in the Pines Bar of the Millenium Hotel, and police are now convinced that the poison was in Litvinenko's tea cup."

Also interesting is that Litvinenko met with Berezovsky at his office and maybe even his residence after seeing Lugovoi:

Traces were also found in a former Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky's offices and his residence in Mayfair.

Reading Berezovsky's wiki-bio convinces me that he's not above a dealing in black market polonium. Especially when any attack using the material could be linked back to the Kremlin.

Other than that, there are several equally viable theories. It's quite a bit to think about.

Personally? I think the Kremlin got to Lugovoi before his last trip to London:

Oleg Gordievsky, the most senior KGB agent ever to defect to Britain, said they wanted to "demonstrate something new".[60] On the Another suggestion by Gordievsky, is that the poisoners were unaware that technology existed to detect traces left by polonium-210: "Did you know that polonium-210 leaves traces? I didn’t. And no one did. (...) what they didn’t know was that this equipment, this technology exists in the West – they didn’t know that, and that was where they miscalculated."

Lugovoi was most likely colluding with Berezovsky to build an interior network of dissidents. The Kremlin found out, and flipped him.

5/31/2007 09:03:00 AM  
Blogger VasyaDC said...

I hate to jump into the speculative fray, but I couldn't help but to notice that you lumped MI6 and Berezovsky into one potential scenario. I think that it is more likely that both Berezovsky and Litvininko did some limited side work for MI6--nothing that would necessitate their elimination. Second, the polonium trade that Russia engages in is quite legal and I find even the prospect that rogue elements of Putin's regime, or corrupt officials with Kremlin connections, a very unlikely and difficult one to swallow (though the whole event confounds the imagination). Finally, there's the issue of motive. It's hard to see Lugovoi wanting to kill Litvinenko for his own ends, which still leaves the possibility that he may have done it under orders from someone else, but if not the state or state-elements, then who? And who the hell would use polonium rather than delivering a double tap to the back of the skull?

Of course, none of us (nor the authorities in either the UK or RF, I believe) have a real clue, but it's hard for me to get past Berezovsky's potential motives. Litvinenko did work for him, after all; his life is full of similar backstabbing and double-dealings; and I've always been puzzled by the UK's designation of his as a "political refugee"--he seems much more like a crook that turned up the political rhetoric once he could no longer get his way, and finds asylum quite beneficial. His entreprenuerial skills, like many successful Russians of his era, are mostly in knowing which palms to grease; legitimate enterprise and demand with supply seem to be wholly outside of his competencies. In other words, I'm sure there's plenty of potentially lucrative dirt on the guy, and I would wager that Litvinenko's asking price was too oligarchic for Berezovsky's liking.

5/31/2007 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Aristides said...

One more thing.

Dmitry Kovtun, the other principal, is currently under investigation by German detectives for suspected plutonium smuggling into Germany.

5/31/2007 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

Wretchard, I think you are way off base here.

The Soviet KGB which Putin spent most of his career in had a long history of assassinating exiles who made trouble. With exotic means. In London. Georgi Markov?

The whole purpose was to kill, with impunity, to intimidate.

OF COURSE whoever poisoned Litivenko with Polonium 210 did it to send a message: we can kill you, gruesomely, and no one can touch us. See the poisoning of the Ukranian politician. Or all those people falling out of windows, being shot in elevators, and so on in Moscow or Los Angeles (the NBC commentator after he'd appeared on camera).

Of course it was Putin. No one else had the motive. No one else had the means: not just the materials but the network of men to administer it. No one else fits a pattern.

Jihadists would have acted like Jihadists: a snuff video to make their point. That's the "way" the institutional memory of how Al Qaeda as a "brand" operates. You see it in Iraq, Thailand, Pakistan, Somalia, and London.

The KGB and now Putin operate ala the Mafia: they kill or poison with impunity, no one can touch them, officially it was "not them" but unofficially everyone knows it was and the message sent is fear: don't oppose the Kremlin or you die horribly.

Broadly speaking, after Beslan Putin made his speech about strength and weakness and has decided to be "strong" by using the traditional methods of the KGB and Kremlin. We can expect more of this from Putin and his successors if he has any.

But one thing stands clear: institutions and people who come out of them tend to operate among broad patterns. This incident has all the markings of the KGB institutionally.

5/31/2007 01:12:00 PM  
Blogger jane said...

After I snapped a picture of a former KGB building in Smolensk, and unbeknownst to me occupied by its successor Russian agency, my camera was stolen just a few hours later. I suspect the cabbie and someone at the party that night. Thank goodness I wasn't knocked off for the transgression, although I lost some really wonderful countryside banya images.

I visited Russia in '00, and still felt the presence of minders and informants.

5/31/2007 04:39:00 PM  
Blogger Alex Sloat said...

I think you're being too clever for your own good here. It's not unreasonable, but to me the more likely explanation seems to be that the Russians did it, and were either incompetent at security or apathetic about it, perhaps even actively disdainful towards it as whiskey_199 suggested. The Russians seem to favour blatantly obvious assassinations - everyone from Georgi Markov to Anna Politkovskaya and Victor Yuschenko. Putting Litvinenko into that category seems the natural explanation.

6/02/2007 09:27:00 PM  

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