Alexander Litvinenko: Blackmailer, Smuggler, Gangster Extraordinaire

by , December 05, 2006

If a would-be novelist – desperate for money and some kind of recognition – put the events surrounding the death of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko into a fictional narrative, one can only imagine the kind of reviews it would generate. An improbable plot – caricatures instead of characters – and, in the end, just plain unbelievable. After all, why in the name of all that’s holy would Vladimir Putin launch what amounts to the first act of nuclear terrorism – and on British soil, to boot?

Yet that is the narrative written in the screaming headlines of Britain’s tabloid press, and their hysterical coverage is reflected here in the States. The involvement of the FSB, Russia’s intelligence service, is almost taken for granted: the only disagreement seems to be over whether it was Putin, or “rogue” elements, who poisoned Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210. The conspiracy theorists have a big problem, however: all known suspects, far from being potential FSB agents, are known for their anti-Putin views.

Another big problem for the “Putin did it” advocates is that the truth about Litvinenko is coming out: he wasn’t the “human rights” campaigner and noble dissident his supporters have portrayed, but a man who hoped to profit from his inside knowledge of KGB/FSB affairs. He was also a blackmailer, and may have been involved in the smuggling of nuclear materials from inside the Soviet Union to the West and parts unknown. He was, in short, a man so enmeshed in the underground world of the Russian mafia, in shady deals and off-the-books arrangements, that he could have been the victim of any number of criminal gangs.

The details of Litvinenko’s scheme to extort money from prominent Russians is detailed by the Guardian:

“Litvinenko claimed to have made contact with senior sources in the heart of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, who would supply him with a stream of confidential dossiers on any target that the 43-year-old exile requested. These documents would, according to Litvinenko, be used to ‘blackmail’ some of Russia’s most shadowy and formidable figures. It was simple: either they would pay or the world would learn their blackest secrets.”

According to Julia Svetlichnaja, a Russian doctoral candidate at the University of Westminster’s Center for the Study of Democracy, Litvinenko told her:

“‘He was going to blackmail or sell sensitive information about all kinds of powerful people including oligarchs, corrupt officials and sources in the Kremlin,’ she said. ‘He mentioned a figure of £10,000 they would pay each time to stop him broadcasting these FSB documents. Litvinenko was short of money and was adamant that he could obtain any files he wanted.’”

Could this have had something to do with his untimely demise? If so, then Litvinenko’s death has little to do with the KGB, and more to do with the murky shadowland in which he operated. As this piece in The Australian put it:

“It is thought the former Russian spy might have been killed in London after a deal that went wrong with associates involved in the ruthless world of Russian business. According to security sources, investigators are looking at the former spy’s dealings with Russian businessmen involved in the lucrative energy sector and the shadowy world of private security. ‘We are looking at a very long list of Litvinenko’s friends and foes since he has been in London,’ one source said.

“The list includes exotic figures ranging from billionaire businessmen, former Kremlin spies, and KGB agents to underworld bosses. In the six years that he was in Britain, Litvinenko appeared to have acquired a formidable collection of friends and enemies. Although he described himself as a journalist, Litvinenko tried unsuccessfully to muscle in on several lucrative business deals with Russians.

“On the day he fell ill, he was attempting to broker a gas and oil exploration deal involving a British conglomerate that he claimed to represent. He was envious of the money many of his former colleagues were making.”

Even more problematic for Litvinenko’s elevation to sainthood is the allegation that he was involved in smuggling nuclear materials out of the former Soviet Union. The Independent reports:

“Alexander Litvinenko, the poisoned former Russian agent, told the Italian academic he met on the day he fell ill that he had organized the smuggling of nuclear material out of Russia for his security service employers.”

According to the British newspaper, Litvinenko admitted to Scaramella that he had “masterminded the smuggling of radioactive material to Zurich in 2000.”

If the scale of Litvinenko’s avarice allowed him to go into business as a blackmailer, then surely the smuggling of nuclear materials wasn’t out of the question. Here is yet another business opportunity for an ex-KGB agent – utilizing his old contacts to muscle in on the black-market trade in nukes. Given his involvement with Chechen terrorists, and his declared intention of overthrowing the Russian government by force, the possibilities are terrifying. In this context, it could be that the nuking of Litvinenko was a byproduct of a nuclear smuggling scheme – an accident rigged to look like a deliberate poisoning.

The accidental poisoning scenario is made more credible by the trail of radioactivity investigators are following, which not only extends to as many as two dozen locations in London, but also apparently extends across Europe via the three or four airliners that tested positive for suspicious concentrations of polonium-210. Thousands of passengers have been alerted by British Airways and told to come in for testing if they traveled on a suspect flight. What piqued official interest in these particular flights was apparently the fact that one or more suspects were known to have taken them, most notably the three Russians who met with Litvinenko in the Millennium Hotel – the site with the highest level of polonium-210 contamination.

The evolving semi-official story appears to be pinning the poisoning on this group of three Russians who met with Litvinenko in the Pine Bar at the Millennium. These guys supposedly were sent by a “rogue” FSB faction with its own murky reasons for offing the Russian “dissident.” All three are denying it, and one of them, Andrei Lugovoi, told the News of the World: “We suspect that someone has been trying to frame us. Someone passed this stuff onto us… so as to point the finger at us and distract the police.”

As the investigation widens and speculation is rife, the Litvinenko affair is swirling with numerous subplots that seem designed to divert attention away from the facts and conjure a smokescreen thicker than San Francisco fog. Litvinenko is not only depicted by his fan club as having been hot on the trail of Anna Politkovskaya’s killer, but he was also supposedly onto the “real story” of how the Russian state dismantled the Yukos energy conglomerate – with lots of dirty linen hidden away in a KGB closet to which Litvinenko was mysteriously given the key.

It’s funny how the source of these tall tales always turns out to be one of his fellow ex-KGB comrades, many of whom are now in the pay of exiled Russian oligarchs, such as Boris Berezovsky, or Leonid Nevzlin – who claims Litvinenko visited him in Israel to procure certain incriminating documents “proving” the calumny of the Kremlin in the Yukos affair.

The fogger effect doesn’t get any thicker, however, than with the accusations emanating from Yegor Gaidar, a former Russian prime minister, who claims that he, too, has been poisoned by the FSB during a conference held in Ireland. Of course, Gaidar and his spokespeople, including his daughter, never openly accuse the Kremlin of dosing the ex-prime minister with poison, but the implication is clear – although we never get an actual doctor saying this, only Gaidar’s daughter. Gaidar, by the way, seems to be recovering from whatever it was that ailed him. We are now getting to the point where every upset stomach in the Russian “exile” community is going to be attributed to Putin’s professional poisoners. It would be funny if the media didn’t eat it up so readily.

Oh, one more thing, and that is the timing: is it just a coincidence that this tsunami of accusations against the Kremlin rose up just prior to an important Nato summit meeting held in Riga? Or that Britain and Russia were on the verge of negotiating a new extradition treaty that would have made it much easier for the Kremlin to extradite Berezovsky to Russia, where he is wanted on charges of murder, embezzlement, and extortion?

Berezovsky, who employed Litvinenko while he was alive and is using him in death as the symbol of Putin’s malignity, is the key figure in all this: the man slain Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov called Russia’s “godfather.” The real Mafia could learn a thing or two from Berezovsky, who, Klebnikov averred, assassinated his business rivals – one with an obscure nerve toxin – while the authorities stood by and let it happen on account of the oligarch’s connections with top Kremlin officials. When Putin rose to power, however, and turned against Berezovsky – his former supporter and patron – the rule of the oligarchs was over. Berezovsky, Nevzlin, and the others fled Russia, and haven’t stopped plotting to discredit and ultimately overthrow their nemesis ever since.

The War Party has long been breathing down Vladimir Putin’s neck, condemning him as the reincarnation of Stalin and absurdly averring that he plans on recreating the Soviet empire in all its former misshapen “glory.” The regime-changers, as I have written before, have Putin’s Russia in their sights, and the Litvinenko affair is the first act of what promises to be a very long and drawn-out melodrama. Whether it will wind up a comedy or a tragedy is hard to tell at the moment – but I’d place my bets on the latter in the long run.

Read more by Justin Raimondo