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Vladimir Putin’s Deadly War Against Dissent

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02/24/17
In the Magazine
Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, on December 23. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Updated | The list of victims laid at the feet of Vladimir Putin has gotten so long now that you need a chart to keep track of them. Too bad Bill O’Reilly didn’t have one in hand when Donald Trump brushed off the Fox News host’s remark that Putin and his cronies are “killers.”

But a chart is just what the Association of Former Intelligence Officers produced in a recent edition of its quarterly bulletin, The Intelligencer. To be sure, AFIO, which represents 4,500 former CIA, FBI and military intelligence veterans, is steeped in Cold War hatred for the Kremlin, but even if its chart is off by half, the list of Moscow’s suspected victims would be grimly impressive: There are over 30 names on the list.

Related: Putin, Trump and the Infamous 'Golden Shower' Memos

Peter Oleson, a former assistant director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, put the list together before longtime Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza fell deathly ill from poison in a Moscow hospital in February. And before a former KGB general, Oleg Erovinkin, was found dead in the back of his car in Moscow the day after Christmas. Erovinkin was suspected of being a source for Christopher Steele, the ex-British intelligence officer who assembled the notorious “golden shower” memorandum on alleged connections between President Donald Trump’s camp and the Russian president.

Steele has gone underground, and considering the number of dissidents, defectors, journalists, disaffected former Putin cronies and rivals who have died under suspicious circumstances since the former KGB colonel came to power 18 years ago, his precaution is well founded, says Oleson. “One or two or three, you could always explain away, but dozens? You have to say, ‘No, they're not innocent deaths here.’”

Through the years, poison has felled many a Kremlin critic. On February 2, Kara-Murza, a former Washington, D.C.–based television correspondent active in Russian liberal opposition parties and movements since Putin’s rise, was hospitalized. His wife told reporters the diagnosis was "acute poisoning by an undetermined substance." It was the second time Kara-Murza, 35, had mysteriously fallen ill.

Observers were quick to compare Kara-Murza’s misfortune to that of Alexander Litvinenko, a disenchanted former Russian security agent poisoned to death by radioactive polonium in London in 2006. Scotland Yard leveled a finger at the Kremlin for the murder of Litvinenko, saying “the evidence suggests that the only credible explanation is in one way or another the Russian state is involved in Litvinenko's murder.” Britain demanded Moscow extradite the alleged perpetrator, Andrey Lugovoy, to stand trial, but the Kremlin declined. Lugovoy, who called reports of his responsibility in Litvinenko’s death nothing but “invention, supposition, rumors,” now has a seat in the Duma, which provides him immunity from prosecution.

Litvinenko, who British intelligence was supporting while he did private work for a business risk-analysis firm, was said to be investigating Spanish links to the Russian mafia when Lugovoy, a former KGB bodyguard, allegedly slipped the polonium into his tea. The context of his murder is plumbed in a heart-pounding new book on the affair, A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia's War With the West, by British journalist Luke Harding.

“Litvinenko wasn't exactly James Bond,” writes Harding, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. “But he was passing British intelligence sensitive information about the links between Russia mafia gangs active in Europe and powerful people at the very top of Russian power—including Putin.” Altogether, Litvinenko would say, the Russian president, his ministers and their mobster pals comprise what could only be called “a mafia state.” Or, as O’Reilly put it to Trump recently, “He’s a killer.”

“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump responded in a remark that seemed to defend Putin and drew widespread rebukes.

It’s been impossible to prove Putin had a hand in any of the 30 or so deaths he or his cronies are suspected of carrying out. But there are just so many untimely demises of Russian dissidents, journalists and others that Oleson decided to include them all in his list, no matter that foul play was ruled out in some. One such is the odd death of former Putin crony Mikhail Lesin in a Washington, D.C., hotel room in November 2015. Some accounts speculated that he “may have been talking to the FBI to avoid corruption charges,” Oleson notes. Police ultimately decided he stumbled and died from acute alcohol poisoning.

“Not that I'm overly suspicious, but he would have been a prime candidate for [assassination], given what he was doing and what Putin has shown that he has done with others,” Oleson said. “You have to wonder.”

Kara-Murza was still suffering from the effects of his 2015 poisoning—nerve damage on his left side that caused him to walk with a cane—when he fell ill again earlier this month. As with that earlier incident, his doctors say they can’t pin down exactly what put him in the hospital again. His wife said she has sent samples of her husband’s blood, hair and fingernails to a private laboratory in Israel for analysis.

Unlike many of Putin’s victims, Kara-Murza has powerful American friends looking out for him. One of them is Senator John McCain of Arizona, who took to the Senate floor to denounce Trump for vaguely equating Putin’s murders with some unspecified American ones. Kara-Murza "knew that there was no moral equivalence between the United States and Putin's Russia,” McCain fumed. “I repeat, there is no moral equivalence between that butcher and thug and KGB colonel and the United States of America.... To allege some kind of moral equivalence between the two is either terribly misinformed or incredibly biased.”

Former U.S. General Barry McCaffrey called Trump’s whitewash of Putin’s thuggery “the most anti-American statement” ever made by a commander in chief.

Oleson’s list makes the point. Next time, O’Reilly should hand it to Trump and ask him to name critics killed on the order of an American president.

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