The Tsar Knew

| Mark Kelton
Mark Kelton
Former Deputy Director for Counterintelligence, CIA National Clandestine Service

“The important thing to know about an assassination,” Eric Ambler wrote in A Coffin for Dimitrios, “is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.”

I was reminded of that line as I read retired British High Court Judge Robert Owen’s report on the 2006 murder of former Russian intelligence officer Aleksandr Litvinenko.  A testament to the prudence of the British Judiciary, as well as to the professionalism of British law enforcement and intelligence personnel, the report thoroughly examines the circumstances surrounding the killing of the Kremlin critic who had come out publicly against corruption in Russia’s security services.  The “strong circumstantial evidence of Russian state responsibility,” Owen wrote, to include the role likely played by the FSB in Litvinenko’s poisoning by polonium probably originating from a Russian nuclear reactor and the potential motives for persons and organizations within the Russian state to take action against him, is particularly convincing.

While Judge Owen did not directly tie Russian President Vladimir Putin or other senior Russian officials to the murder, his conclusion that the killing “was probably approved” by Putin and the then-Chief of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Nikolai Patrushev is surely right.  In my experience, Patrushev was a bloodless apparatchik who would have been equally as comfortable ordering people to their deaths in the cellars of the Lubyanka in the 1930’s as he was leading the FSB from behind a desk several floors above that blood-soaked basement 60 years later.  Patrushev owed, and owes, his rank, power, and position to Putin, whom he succeeded as FSB Director in 1999.  As such, it is inconceivable Patrushev would proceed with an operation intended to kill a man, however hated and despised as a traitor, on British soil without the approval of his President and patron.

That Putin would approve such an operation should come as no surprise.  “Death solves all problems,” Stalin (in)famously said, “no man, no problem.” Putin is no Stalin to be sure, but the state he leads is the progeny of a Soviet State whose leaders were fully prepared to use even the most extreme measures, specifically assassination and murder on a grand scale, to ensure their personal power and that of the State.  Under the Soviets, and particularly under Stalin, there was a well-documented history of murder of those branded by the security services as traitors and enemies of the state.  The 13th Department of the First (Foreign) Chief Directorate of the KGB was, for example, devoted to so-called ‘Special Tasks’ to include sabotage and assassination at the explicit direction of Soviet leadership.  Indeed, they developed a term for it—wet affairs.  The most famous of these killings was that of Stalin’s bête-noire, Leon Trotsky, murdered with an ice axe in Mexico City by NKVD assassin Ramon Mercader.  Many others, to include political dissidents and defectors, particularly those from the intelligence services, were similarly targeted for death.  While the number of assassinations and assassination attempts fell off markedly under Khrushchev, they did not end altogether.  In fact, the 13th Department continued to develop nerve toxins and poisons.  It that vein, it is worth recalling that Litvinenko’s murder was not the first such assassination in London.  As detailed by former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, the weapon and ricin poison used to kill dissident Giorgi Markov on a London bridge in 1978 were provided to his Bulgarian State Security assassin at the direction of KGB Chairman Yuriy Andropov.        

Nowhere is the Soviet legacy of ruthlessness in service of the state more firmly entrenched than in the successor organizations to the KGB: the FSB and its Foreign Intelligence Service sister, the SVR.  To understand any intelligence service, you must first understand its culture.  Sadly, unlike in Eastern Europe, where Communist-era intelligence and security services where abolished, purged, or reorganized, there was no post-Cold War reckoning in Russia for the crimes perpetrated by the Soviet security apparatus against its own people.  Consequently, the FSB can proudly proclaim itself the embodiment of a heritage stretching back to the founding of the first Soviet Security Service, the Cheka, by “Iron” Feliks Dzerzhinsky.  Dzerzhinksy left no doubt as to the nature and purpose of the organization he established.  “We stand,” he said, “for organized terror.”   The Cheka, and the alphabet-soup of organizations that followed it, proved true to their founder’s intent, playing a central role in the slaughter of millions by the Soviet state.  That murderous history notwithstanding, FSB officers still call themselves “Chekists” and celebrate their profession on the anniversary of the Cheka’s 20 December 1917 founding, usually with copious amounts of vodka and pickled bottom-feeder in aspic.   That Putin, whose service with the KGB marked the formative period of his life and informs (or ought to inform) any assessment of the man and his thinking, has not changed the date of that commemoration and has spoken approvingly of that heritage, tells us much about him and those around him, many of whom are also former intelligence officers.

As the British report underlines, there is a dark history of those opposed to Putin’s rule meeting untimely and violent ends.  The list of those unfortunates is lengthy and includes legislators, businessmen, investigative reporters, democracy supporters, and human rights activists.  All engaged in actions apparently judged by the Russian leadership and security services as warranting extra-judicial death.  There seems little doubt from reading the British report that the FSB leadership considered Litvinenko a traitor.  He had publicly denounced corruption in the FSB and, once in Britain, apparently worked with British Intelligence.  In the FSB, which reserves a particular contempt for those who betray the Service, all of this would have been anathema.   FSB seniors threatened Litvinenko with death before he fled to Britain.  His alliance with Boris Berezovsky, an arch-enemy of Putin’s regime, would have added to FSB hatred for him.   Indeed, there is some irony in this in that much of the FSB rage against Litvinenko stemmed from his reported refusal take part in an FSB plan to kill Berezovsky and from his accusation that Putin ordered the October 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Putin, of course, cannot and will not admit a role in Litvinenko’s killing.  But his award of a state honour ‘for services to the fatherland’ to Andrei Lugovoy, a fellow former KGB officer and one of the men implicated in Litvinenko’s killing, supports Owen’s conclusion that Putin “almost certainly looked on what Litvinenko did after fleeing abroad as punishable treachery,” and that he had motives for taking action against Litvinenko, including killing him.  Moreover, Putin’s public pronouncements on treason and traitors motivating those opposed to him leave little doubt where his head and heart lie.  Putin blamed treason for the 2010 compromise of Russian illegals operating in the U.S., predicting a bad end for the person he thought responsible, albeit stopping short of murder.  “This is the result of betrayal,” he said, “and traitors always end up badly. They end up, as a rule, on booze, drugs, or in the gutter.”  The Russian President’s Kremlin spokesman was less guarded: “The fate of such a person is unenviable.  He will carry this with him all his life and will fear retribution every day.”  Putin’s 2012 signing of an extension of Russian law to allow those representing international organizations to be charged with treason set a broadly expansive definition of that crime in the “managed democracy” that is today’s Russia.  Finally, in an 18 March 2014 Parliamentary address, Putin went further, accusing a “disparate bunch of national traitors…a fifth column” of sowing discord inside Russia.

While Putin is almost certainly responsible for Litvinenko’s murder, it would be a mistake to simply view him as a thug.  He is a thug, but he is more than that; he is a formidable adversary who sees himself as a Russian patriot.  He behaves in a manner in keeping with Russian and Soviet leaders of the past; aware of his place and role in history.  Further, as a good intelligence officer, Putin views the relative weakness and irresolution he now sees in the United States as an opportunity to hurt a country he views as an adversary while advancing Russian interests.  Putin is not trying to rebuild the Soviet Union, though he certainly seeks to redress what he sees as Moscow’s humiliation and loss of status at the hands of the West accompanying the collapse of Soviet power.  He is, however, trying to enhance the power of the Russian state, both in the “near abroad” (that is, the former Soviet states) and farther afield.  Actions such as his carving up of Ukraine, the ongoing recapitalization of Russian nuclear forces, and renewed projection of Russian influence into the Middle East—all from a position of relative weakness—attest that he is doing a damned fine job of it. 

Over the course of my career, I confronted a number of KGB officers similar in mind-set and approach to that of Vladimir Putin.  Thoroughly professional, they used each contact to push as hard and far as they could until the moment came to push back…hard.  Such a demonstration was necessary to maintaining the equilibrium of, and ultimately control over, a relationship.  That moment has come for the United States and its allies.

It is against this backdrop that I read with considerable interest in the 4 January issue of the Washington Post of what was termed “growing concerns” over a shortage of Russia experts in the U.S. government.   Such a shortage, particularly compared with the deep expertise surrounding me when I joined the CIA Directorate of Operations’ Soviet and East European (SE) Division in the early 1980’s, certainly exists.  Some of this came about as many of the Soviet hands who had defeated Communism left the stage as the curtain dropped on the Soviet Union, justly proud of the victory for freedom they helped win.  It is also an actuarial reality that those of us who came of age in the latter stages of the Cold War are now departing government service.  Finally, the challenges that have confronted our country since 9/11, particularly our ongoing war with radical Islamic terror, have dictated a shift of people and resources away from coverage of such longer term issues as Russia in deference to the immediate need to keep our citizens and those of our allies safe from Islamic terror.

While Russia is not the Soviet Union, it remains the only country that can destroy the United States in a single morning.  It is also a country led by a man who clearly sees it as his mission to reassert Russian power and influence in the world, a push that will continue to bring Moscow into (hopefully figurative) conflict with the United States.  As such, meeting the challenge Putin’s Russia poses will require renewed attention to educating, training, and grooming a new generation of intelligence and national security professionals deeply steeped in knowledge of that country, its culture and language, as well as the history of U.S. relations with Moscow.

In a more parochial vein, ongoing reorganization at CIA has resulted in break-up of the Directorate of Operations’ Central Eurasia Division, the successor to the old SE Division and the Division that has heretofore allowed CIA to operate effectively in Russia.  I trust those charged with implementing the ongoing reorganization will ensure that the tradecraft skills, target knowledge, and dedication to the operational craft those Divisions embodied are fostered and maintained.  This is of crucial import not just for CIA’s future operational effectiveness against the Russia target.  It is also important because the skill, traditions, discipline, and élan engendered by CIA’s struggle with what is still the most professionally proficient Counterintelligence (CI) adversary it confronts, the FSB, have under-girded its ability to operate effectively in other harsh environments and against other difficult objectives worldwide, to include out most challenging counterterrorism targets.  Such deep expertise will be needed if we are to discover and curb the designs of Putin’s Russia, thereby ensuring that the tragedy that was the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko is not, in combination with deaths of other Russians who have sought to assert and defend true democracy in Russia, to be relegated to a mere historical statistic.

In the wake of the Owen report, there will surely be a worsening of British-Russian relations (if that is possible) and a continued rejection from the Russian government of any complicity in the Litvinenko murder.  Given the convincing nature of that report, we may also see commentary from voices friendlier to Moscow to the effect that while, perhaps, wayward officers in the Russian security services may have played some role in these events, the Russian government had no hand in Litvinenko’s murder.  We should not be deceived as to those who, figuratively in Ambler’s words, “fired the shot” in this assassination.  There are no rogue elements in the FSB, except of course those made to look that way so as to appeal to those desirous of citing them to excuse the actions of the man leading the Russian state.

Pre-revolutionary Russian history is replete with tales of the peasantry, after enduring the depredations of Cossack bands, pogroms, and the incompetency of Tsarist bureaucrats, beseechingly lamenting: “If only the Tsar knew.”  Sadly, the Tsar always knew.  And so did Vladimir Putin.

The Author is Mark Kelton

Mark Kelton is a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency executive who retired in 2015 with 34 years of experience in intelligence operations. He is the Senior Vice President for National Security Solution at DynCorp International; is an Advisor to AppGuard.US and Chairman of its TRUSTICA Division; and is Board Chair of Spookstock, a charity that benefits the CIA Memorial Foundation and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

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