By Sarah Taylor
The Russian government has had a long relationship with organized crime and is deeply embedded in revenge killings. These actions have specifically revolved around the KGB, Russia’s secret service organization primed to target those who speak against the government or country. A recent investigation by British officials into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a KGB defector who died of a mysterious poisoning incident, has unearthed the revelation that the Russian government, specifically Vladimir Putin, has had a strong role in organized crime and assassinating foreign dissidents.
Vladimir Putin has had a long-standing love affair with organized crime and suspicious activities. He was a KGB agent himself before being promoted to head of the organization in 1998 by the sitting president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. It was later revealed that his PhD dissertation in strategic planning was plagiarized from a KGB translation of a U.S. professor’s work. In light of this, he was still promoted to run the KGB, suggesting that he was not being promoted solely based on his work or merit. There is also evidence suggesting that Putin was involved in the murder of the Russian Attorney General who was investigating corruption in the Kremlin at the time. Four months later, he was named Prime Minister of Russia. There was much speculation over the “bizarre, spontaneous promotions” that resulted in Putin being named prime minister. In August of 1999, Putin’s first major action as Prime Minister was to order a carpet bombing of Chechnya and invade the country in a ploy to resurge the Russian military. The Chechen war brought into question many human rights violations by Russia against Chechnya. Following this, opposition journalists started being blatantly assassinated for reporting the conditions in Chechnya. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, an anti-Russian candidate for Ukraine president was poisoned by Dioxin, a chemical weapon used by the Soviets in Afghanistan. Putin’s history with organized crime is embedded with mysterious episodes of his enemies being mysteriously disposed of by criminals.
Alexander Litvinenko was a KGB agent before he was dismissed for making accusations of illegal Kremlin activity in 1998. He then went on to write a book titled Blowing Up Russia, in which he accused the Kremlin of masterminding apartment bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists to gain support for the war against Chechnya. In 2003, 3 years before Litvinenko was poisoned, Sergei Yushenkov was gunned down for investigating Putin’s KGB involvement in planting the bombs in the apartments. On November 1, 2006, Litvinenko became suddenly sick and subsequently died on November 23, 2006, from an illness his doctors were unable to diagnose. Recent advances in technology led to British officials to recently declare that Litvinenko died of polonium-210 traces in his tea. Earlier in the day on November 1, Litvinenko sat down to have tea with two KGB agents, Lugovoi and Kovtun, at the Pine Bar in the Millennium Hotel in London. Later investigations have proved that there were traces of polonium-210 in the drainpipes of the Millennium Hotel. British investigators have claimed that Putin ordered the two agents to poison Litvinenko, leading to his death. Most of the evidence that has been collected on Litvinenko’s death is strong, but does not prove a connection with the top Russian leadership. That said, their actions surrounding the death is more than suspicious.
Russia has refused to grant Britain the extradition of KGB agents Lugovoi and Kovtun in the murder of Litvinenko. The two agents have instead been granted immunity and a medal from Putin himself. There have been questions about the implications of the investigation into Putin’s involvement in the murder harming Britain’s relationship with Russia. The information has had no effect on the Russian public—most of the citizens have a deep distrust of the West. Putin’s involvement in Litvinenko’s death is a likely conclusion when considering the personal dimension Litvinenko’s work has for Putin, which included denunciations of his leadership and even accusations of pedophilia.
The KGB’s killing of Litvinenko is significant for multiple reasons. First, it proves that Russia is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to silence “loose ends”, even those under the protection and on the soil of foreign governments. Second, Litvinenko made serious allegations of Putin’s connections to organized crime. While those accusations could be blown off as conspiracy theories from a disaffected exile, his death gives them merit: clearly, the Kremlin, or at least a higher official inside the KGB, viewed him as a serious threat. The question remains as to whether what Litvienko said was true, but based on the retaliation he received, the world would benefit from remaining watchful of Russia’s overseas activities, and from an EU investigation into the Kremlin’s vast connections with organized crime.