Geopolitical Diary: The Curious Politkovskaya Case

5 MINS READAug 28, 2007 | 02:00 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Russian prosecutors announced on Monday the arrest of 10 suspects in the death of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian investigative journalist who was shot and killed Oct. 7, 2006. Politkovskaya was a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and there was speculation that it was Putin (or a close supporter) who ordered her killing. Russian authorities said Monday that she had been killed by an organized crime group — one headed by a Chechen, but also containing law enforcement officers, including one member of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's intelligence organization. Prosecutors said she had been writing about abuses by security forces in Chechnya and this triggered the killing. Most importantly, the chief prosecutor said the killing was linked to Kremlin opponents living abroad. According to Reuters, when the prosecutor was asked if he meant Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch living in London and a bitter enemy of Vladimir Putin, he smiled and declined to answer. He did say, "Our investigation has led us to conclude that only people living abroad could be interested in killing Politkovskaya. Forces interested in destabilizing the country, changing its constitutional order, in stoking crisis, in a return to the old system where money and oligarchs ruled, in discrediting national leadership, provoking external pressure on the country, could be interested in this crime." He also said the suspects were involved in several other killings. She was allegedly killed by a Chechen who controlled an FSB lieutenant colonel, a police major and seven other operatives, all in turn controlled from overseas. So, Politkovskaya was killed by a Chechen who controlled a lieutenant colonel in the Moscow branch of the FSB, a police major and seven other operatives, and all of them were in turn controlled from overseas. The purpose of the killing was not to silence her — indeed, the link to organized crime is a little hard to see — but to help destabilize the Russian regime and recreate the old order, the bad old days of Boris Yeltsin. The first thing to note is that this is a lot of firepower to bring to bear against one unarmed 48-year-old woman. One of the basic rules of covert operations designed to destabilize a major power is to try not to be caught. Involving 10 people in this conspiracy is not only excessive, but downright dangerous. Given that an FSB officer was said to be on board, surely he would recognize that there were too many people involved to be secure — and he probably would have recognized that all these people were not needed to kill her. By knowing her address or where she worked, one person shooting and one driving should be enough — and the rule of covert action is to involve the fewest people possible. We are in no position to judge whether these were the killers and whether they were controlled by Berezovsky or anyone else abroad. But it is unclear to us, based on evidence supplied Monday, that only a foreign-controlled conspiracy wanted her dead. That is what bothers us about the prosecutor's statement. That it could have been a foreign plot is certainly possible. That that is the only possible explanation just isn't true. This is a lot of firepower to bring to bear against one unarmed 48-year-old woman. Prosecutors can get carried away, but there is clearly more going on here. Putin, along with anyone in the FSB, is now in the clear. They didn't do it. The conspiracy did involve an FSB officer, but he is instead linked to Chechen organized crime or to foreign influences. So, to the extent the FSB was involved, it was a rogue officer, not a sanctioned operation. Finally, by deflecting it overseas, the Russians not only finger Berezovsky, but imply that there are foreign forces at work trying to destabilize the country. The arrest sanitizes Putin and makes his continued presence in the leadership all the more urgent. If foreigners are now killing Russian journalists in order to destabilize Russia in a reactionary plot, then certainly stern measures will need to be taken. And when stern measures are needed, Vladimir Putin is the man to take them. The charge of foreign involvement in a destabilization campaign stops short of one further step: charging that Berezovsky is cooperating with British intelligence and the CIA in this conspiracy. That not only would complete the sense of embattlement, but it would repay the British for their charges over the death of a former FSB officer in London from poisoning with a radioactive substance. It also would set the stage for warnings of the danger posed by foreign intelligence organs to the Russian state and of the need for extreme vigilance on the part of the peace-loving Russian people. The charge against foreign intelligence agencies has not been made. If it arises, it will mark the crossing of an important threshold.

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