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Murder on the Polonium Express

The Litvinenko murder is the world's first act of nuclear terrorism -- here's a rundown on the theories of who could be behind this attack.
 
 
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Five years ago, just before 9/11, I organized and participated in one of the stupidest and most drunken auto rallies of all time, a 500-kilometer odyssey to Moscow across central Russia in ten ancient and poorly-restored Zaporozhets automobiles -- perhaps the silliest cars ever made, with each containing 30 horsepower engines and built so light that two grown men can lift and drop one into a parking spot.

The trip left me with powerful memories -- from driving through historic Nizhni Novgorod in a Mike Tyson mask with Led Zeppelin IV blaring out of my midget car windows, to hearing a Georgian theater director explain why he'd laid seven prostitutes the night before the rally ("They were only 300 rubles each," he said), to watching 25 grown men cook a cauldron of pig and duck entrails at midnight in the wilderness after consuming an incredible four whole cases of vodka, to going outside to catch a drunken American woman humping the front right tire of my car outside the nightclub where we'd held the end-of-the-race celebration.

Actually that last night ended when I got into a fistfight with a professional clown, but it's probably best not to get into that incident too much...

I'm remembering that trip this week because of where the rally started: a city called Arzamas, not far from Nizhni. Neighboring Arzamas is a closed city called Arzamas-16, formerly known as Sarov. Arzamas-16 is the Los Alamos of Russia, famous nationwide for being home to the Russian bomb. In Arzamas-16 there's a factory called "Avangard," where the Soviets in the 1950s started industrial production of various radioactive materials. One of my friends from that rally, in fact, used to work at that factory. Among the radioactive materials his former co-workers produced at that plant? Polonium-210, the substance used in the murder of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London last week.

Litvinenko has been dead less than a week and already his murder is shaping up to be one of the all-time Whodunits -- a mind-bogglingly complex story involving a walking vault of dangerous secrets for a victim and a vast range of prominent political actors as plausible potential suspects. It's a plot straight out of a Le Carre novel, with a well-known ex-spy with intimate knowledge of both the Kremlin's inner workings and the Russian criminal underworld murdered in a London restaurant, using a deadly radioactive substance whose origin is almost certainly industrial and military. And not only is this ex-spy murdered, but he's murdered just before the Russian president, who is presumed by the media to be a suspect, is due to arrive in Helsinki for a meeting with EU leaders. A more intriguing mixture of secrets, political blackmail, and retribution would be hard to imagine.

While most of the world's press is engaged in trying to unravel the murder mystery, almost no one is bothering to point out the other obvious angle -- that the Litvinenko murder is the world's first act of nuclear terrorism, and we should all be shitting our pants over its implications.

Authorities aren't saying yet what they know about the source of the Polonium-210 presumably used to kill Litvinenko, but I'm guessing that before long it will come out that it came from Arzamas-16, or some place very much like it in the Russian military-industrial complex. As has been pointed out repeatedly in the Russian press this week, killing someone with Western-made Polonium-210 would be very risky, since the chances of the transaction being traced are so high. Not so in Russia, from whence most of the key suspects hail in any case. The big question right now is how that Polonium-210 got from Arzamas-16 or wherever to a sushi restaurant in London and to "businessman" Boris Berezovsky's office, among other places.

If one assumes that that Polonium-210 was taken and used without the full knowledge of the whole Russian government -- and it's not much of a stretch to make that assumption -- then that definitely makes the Litvinenko killing a private act of terrorism, one that requires an urgent international investigation. The rumor mill among Russia-watchers is buzzing at an all-time high right now, and from that mountain of rumors and gossip several scenarios are beginning to emerge as the most likely explanations for the murder. Each of them has horrible implications. Running through them in no particular order:

The Sechin theory -- Igor Sechin, like Putin, is a youngish spook (born in 1960) schooled in Leningrad. His background is as a translator for Soviet military intelligence, with a specialty in French and Portuguese, with experience working in Africa. He worked with Putin in the St. Petersburg government in the 1990s and is the only advisor whom Putin brought with him at every stage of his career. He's currently the chairman of the board of directors of the oil company "Rosneft," but also is said to be the head of a shadow government of "Leningrad Chekists" who for the past six years have given marching orders to the likes of the Russian General Prosecutor's office and the State Accounting Chamber, the investigative body roughly analogous to our GAO. Numerous news stories came out in the Russian press in recent years identifying Sechin as the instigator behind Putin's vicious campaign against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the oil company "Yukos," who was jailed in another international scandal.

Not much is known about Sechin, but the few details that have come out are interesting. Legend has it that he likes to turn documents upside down on his desk so that visitors to his office will be distracted trying to read them. He is also said to be unusually ruthless even by Russian political standards and a personage that many people in government would be more than glad to be rid of -- once the protective presence of Vladimir Putin is removed, ostensibly, when he reaches the end of his term limit in 2008.

Which brings us to the "Sechin theory" -- that Sechin and his hardliner cronies, a group of generally anti-democratic, generally anti-Western, and generally low-foreheaded brutes known collectively as the "Siloviki," are trying to force Putin to remain by their side, in government, by binding him to them in blood. The idea here is that whatever thoughts Putin might have had about retiring to a leisurely life of giving speeches in Munich and sipping cappuccinos in Venice with Silvio Berlusconi will very shortly be off the table once he is tied, internationally, to a series of Stalin-like assassinations.

You remove Putin's options for a Western-focused dismount to his political career and you make it very attractive for him to consider a way around his term limit problem -- particularly when the alternative is remaining in Russia while one of his political enemies, perhaps a more "liberal" type like Dmitri Medvedev, comes to power. If a disgraced Putin stays in Russia that case, he risks becoming the target of future prosecutions and intrigues. Each killing along the lines of the Litvinenko business backs Putin further and further into that corner.

So the theory is that Sechin, who until now has always been known as a creature of Putin, acted independently in this case and ordered the Litvinenko hit as a pre-emptive strike against such possible 2008 presidential candidates as Medvedev and defense minister Sergei Ivanov, blocking their rise with Putin's presumed refusal to step down. He made it as messy as possible, causing maximum embarrassment to Putin, in order to apply pressure on his own political benefactor. This is the most popular theory right now, and it has a few variations, including:

The Kompromat File -- The other factor to consider in the Litvinenko killing is the legendary existence of a supposed treasure trove of kompromat, or compromising information, that exiled businessman and underworld figure Boris Berezovsky is said to have on Putin.

The legend goes something like this: Berezovsky allegedly helped Putin rise to power and also allegedly helped engineer a series of apartment bombings in Russian cities in 1999 that Putin used a) to propel him into the presidency and b) to launch a war with Chechen separatists. Subsequently, Berezovsky fell out of favor with Putin and was booted out of the Russian criminal Eden and forced to set up shop in England, where, in defiance of several laws of nature and physics, he continues to walk the earth and speak freely. He would seem to be a prime candidate for assassination, but for some reason he remains alive -- leading to speculation that Berezovsky has a "doomsday device" ready to go off, a vault of compromising materials (videos? Documents?) tying the Russian president to a variety of horrible deeds, some of those most probably involving the apartment bombings.

Under this theory, the Litvinenko assassination was again a shot across Putin's bow, probably by Sechin but perhaps by some other faction within the Russian government. Whoever ordered the hit would appear to be sending a message: by killing Litvinenko, a figure who is close to Berezovsky (Boris Abramovich is said to have owed Litvinenko his life, as the latter refused to carry out an assassination order against him while still in the FSB), they are showing that they could also kill Berezovsky, perhaps next. And if Berezovsky dies, "it" all comes out, and Putin's career is finished.

There's an interesting and somewhat disturbing twist to the "kompromat" angle. Four months ago, Litvinenko published an article accusing Putin of being a pedophile, claiming that Putin tried to cover up evidence of his allegedly sordid past while he was head of the FSB. Litvinenko's article came on the heels of an extraordinarily strange incident in which Putin lifted up the shirt of a small boy and kissed his belly. The incident sparked a minor scandal in Russia and Putin explained himself somewhat maladroitly, saying, creepily, that "I saw this little boy and I wanted to cuddle with him like a kitten."

In his article Litvinenko referred to a passage in a book by former Russian General Prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, who himself left office after a sex scandal in which he was videotaped cavorting with whores in a Moscow apartment. According to Litvinenko, Putin had romps with boys in that same apartment; and in the Skuratov book, the former prosecutor claims that when Putin asked him to quit, he told him that he himself had had sex in that same room before.

I bring this up apropos of nothing, but... Jesus, how weird this story is getting. Mark Foley is one thing, but Vladimir Putin?

The Berezovsky theory -- The bootlicking Russian press, anxious to find a fall guy for these murders that doesn't involve either Putin or an influential Russian politician, has been bandying this one about, and it appears that Boris Berezovsky will eventually be fingered as the chief "suspect" in the killings by the Russian media.

The funny thing is, the theory makes some sense. Not much sense, but some. Although Berezovsky and Litvinenko were supposedly close, the fact remains that Litvinenko was dining with another Berezovsky associate, Andrei Lugovoi, when he was killed. Another Berezovsky ally, Alexander Goldfarb, is the only figure vouching for the authenticity of Litvinenko's "deathbed" letter accusing Putin of the crime, which to me reads like total horseshit. Here's a sample of Litvinenko's supposed anti-Putin last words:

"You have managed to make me silent, but you have paid dearly for my silence. You have exposed yourself to be barbarian and ruthless. These are the names by which your most irreconcilable opponents most often call you. You have managed to make one person silent, but cries of protest that will whoop all over the world will sound in your, Mr. Putin, ears till the end of your days..."

As one Russian writer I read this weekend pointed out, this letter is so wildly overdone -- even for a notoriously full-of-shit publicity hound like Litvinenko -- that it seems highly unlikely that he wrote it. It recalls two things simultaneously: the hyper-repetitive, blathering style of Boris Berezovsky, and the hyper-repetitive, blathering style of old Russian WWII partizani propaganda movies ("Fascist dog, you've killed me, but you'll never hang us all!"). The fact that a Berezovsky crony shepherded this letter into the press is enough to make anyone suspicious about its origins.

Moreover, let's point this out. Boris Berezovsky does have connections with Chechen separatists, including, notoriously, the legendary Zelig of the Chechen terrorist world, Shamil Basayev. And just two years ago, in February 2005, Berezovsky gave an interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda in which he claimed somehow to have knowledge that "the Chechens have their own kind of atom bomb" and hinted that what he meant was a kind of dirty bomb. Berezovsky claimed in the interview that when he heard about the existence of this bomb through his own circle of acquaintances, he informed the FSB director of what he knew.

But subsequently, a mysterious Chechen figure named "Zakhar" wrote to Komsomolskaya Pravda and claimed that Berezovsky had lied in the interview, that it was Berezovsky himself who had this dirty bomb, and that, far from informing the FSB of its existence, he had tried to sell it to the Chechens.

All of which could be bullshit, or it could be absolutely true. Almost everyone involved in this story is capable of anything. One thing that is interesting to note is that one Maksim Shingarkin, a former officer in the Defense Ministry and an expert on nuclear weaponry, wrote in Komsomolskaya Pravda over the weekend that Polonium-210 was industrially produced by the Soviets in the fifties -- at that very factory in Arzamas-16 -- for use in a kind of primitive "dirty bomb" that the USSR was developing before it had large stockpiles of more sophisticated atomic weapons. The unique properties of the element made it somewhat ideal for this kind of weapon: although it has a short half-life, it is both highly destructive and easy to transport, as the Soviets apparently discovered 50 years ago. Thus the idea that a Polonium-210-based "dirty bomb" is floating around somewhere in this labyrinth of political deviants is not entirely implausible. These bombs existed once already, and it just might be that they have come back into vogue.

That's what's truly scary about the Litvinenko story. Although something very twisted is clearly going on in Russian politics -- most likely a struggle over the 2008 succession that may yet become bloodier, but perhaps something as mundane as a gangland disagreement between political exiles -- the more serious issue is the use of a deadly radioactive material in a Western capital. In virtually every scenario you can imagine the Litvinenko story describes the misuse and misplacing of nuclear material.

If it arrived in London by way of a faction within the Russian government, then the Russian government is an absurd shambles and presents an urgently serious security risk. (Remember, this same Russian government once gave sarin gas to the Japanese death-cult Aum Shinriko -- you think al-Qaeda couldn't outbid those clowns?) If it arrived by way of someone like Shamil Basayev, that's even worse.

Think about it: while the U.S. was busy burning the national treasure digging for nonexistent nukes in the Iraqi desert, gobs of green glowing shit were making their way from Arzamas-16 to Piccadilly Square. The fact that we don't know who did it doesn't make it a more interesting mystery. It makes us that much more fucked. More suspects means more holes in the system -- and that's not exactly the kind of thing we need to hear in the post 9/11 world.

Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone .

 
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