radiation hazard

A few weeks ago, we were discussing the mysterious poisoning death of former Russian secret serviceman Alexander Litvinenko.  At that juncture, most people discussing the issue were of the theory that the assassination was carried out by the Putin government, but something about that just didn't seem quite right to me.

The other lingering question is, obviously, who did it and why.  Occam's razor says to always go for the simplest explanation, and that would be that the Kremlin silenced Litvinenko as well as Moscow journalist Anna Politkovskaya.  That just doesn't sit right with me, though.  Why go to so much trouble when all they had to do was shoot him and leave his body in an alley?  Why invoke such a public, excruciating death, one that would enable Litvinenko to point the finger of blame at the Putin government?

And from this post on December 1st: 

And here's where I am going to venture into the realm of rank speculation.  My personal theory is that this and other recent murders of Putin's ideological opponents (that link is to a story about journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building) may not in fact be the work of the Kremlin, but rather the work of some agency with a direct interest in bringing down the Putin government. 

In the years since the introduction of the free-market system in Russia, the Russian mafia has amassed a huge amount of wealth and power, as well as private citizens like jailed petroleum oligarch Mikhail Kordorkovsky.  Moscow now has the highest concentration of millionaires of any city in the world.  When capitalism came to the former USSR, some savvy operators seized that opportunity to suck up and hoard most of the money in the country.

There are very powerful interests at work here, and it would not surprise me to find that this plot has layers on layers of intrigue.  You may need a state apparatus to make polonium-210, particularly what appears to be a "weaponized" form, but all you need to buy it is money.  At every stage of the process, there are people who could potentially be bought out or threatened.  And one thing the power players in the former Soviet Union have in abundance is money.

So, I would not be so eager to lay the blame for this and other seemingly politically motivated murders at the feet of the Putin administration.  Not because I believe that they are particularly good or just, but because I think it would be hasty to assume that they are the only malevolent actors in this particular drama.

My initial specualtion was that perhaps Litvinenko was murdered by parties acting on behalf of Yukos Oil CEO Mikhail Kordorkovsky.  Just prior to his poisoning, Litvinenko had returned to the UK from Israel, where he met with former Yukos executive Leonid Nevzlin to bring him a purported dossier of the Kremlin's dirty tricks against Yukos. 

From The Australian:  

A DOSSIER drawn up by Alexander Litvinenko on the Kremlin's takeover of the world's richest energy giant will be given to Scotland Yard overnight as police investigate the former KGB spy's secret dealings with some of Russia's richest men.

It emerged yesterday that Mr Litvinenko travelled to Israel just weeks before he died to hand over evidence to a Russian billionaire of how agents working for President Vladimir Putin dealt with his enemies running the Yukos oil company.

He passed this information to Leonid Nevzlin, the former second-in-command of Yukos, who fled to Tel Aviv in fear for his life after the Kremlin seized and then sold off the $US40 billion ($51 billion) company.

My personal theory here was that Litvinenko may have used that meeting to attempt to extort money from the Yukos executives through some form of blackmail, leading to an order by the oligarchs for his assassination.  While I may have been slightly off in that regard, according to CBS's "60 Minutes" tonight, I may have actually been in the ball-park.

(CBS) 
In the months before his death, Litvinenko needed money; he needed a job and spoke of having found one. What was that job? Litvinenko spoke to Julia Svetlichnaya, a Russian graduate student, who sought out his help on a book she was writing. But what he wanted to talk about were his plans concerning those rich and powerful Russian oligarchs.

"He told me that, at that moment, he’s doing a project for blackmailing one of the Russian oligarchs which resides in UK," Svetlichnaya tells Simon. "He thought that it was actually an o.k. thing to do because this particular person, as Litvinenko claimed, had a connection with the Kremlin, had a connection with Putin. And so in his view it, was o.k. to blackmail him."

In the "60 Minutes" report, Bob Simon asks security expert Mark Galeotti:

"There are many ways to kill a man. Using an obscure radioactive isotope is a rather uncommon way. Why do you think this way was chosen?"

Galeotti: "Essentially it’s because of the theater of assassination. If all you want to do is silence someone, then you push them under a bus, you arrange an apparent mugging that’s gone wrong, or something like that," Galeotti says. "If you’re going to carry out a killing using a radioactive isotope like this, you want it to be a big story." 

Which brings me back to this assertion of mine from December:

UPDATE: In the comments we were just discussing that if someone other than the Russian government is doing this, they're not just sending a signal to the Kremlin that says, "We are framing you for these murders," they're also saying, "We have access to your nuclear chemicals."

Or someone's nuclear chemicals.  Otherwise, why not use ricin again or just a gun?

I still believe this.  Someone may well be sending a message to the Kremlin.  I am not an apologist for the Putin regime by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it's naïve for us to assume that the only bad actors in this murder are the FSB and the Kremlin. 

We may never know what happened, and the last thing I want to do is fall into the Pajamas Media trap of stating as unassailable fact that somehow I know better what's happening in this case than the highly trained professionals on the ground, especially from way over here at my laptop in Athens, Georgia.  Still, I will be watching this story unfold even more closely now and I will be very, very eager to see what Dr. Hillhouse at The Spy Who Billed Me has to say about it.