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Friday, 25th April 2014

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Rogue elements

On 4th December, Britain confirmed that it will replace its Trident submarines, designed to reduce much of the USSR to radioactive waste should the Cold War become hot, with a new, modernised WMD system. The announcement came soon after the trial by media of the Russian authorities for the alleged nuclear annihilation in the streets of London of a self-styled dissident exile, and on the eve of the flight to Moscow by British detectives to pursue the official investigation.

The verdict was most cleverly pronounced by Max Hastings in the Guardian:

“The president [Putin] may not have personally ordered Litvinenko's murder, but he is overlord of a culture which legitimised it.”

In other words, it was Putin's fault, whether or not he did it.

One of the few sure things about the facts supporting the media verdict is that they have kept changing.  In the early days of the affair there was the claim by toxicologist John Henry of Queen Mary's Hospital, who we were told was treating Litvinenko, that “There's no doubt that he's been poisoned by thallium”; then, after it transpired that Professor Henry had never actually treated Litvinenko and had never even seen his medical notes, he faded from the news and instead there were the several solid objects, appearing in X-rays, which we were told had been ingested by Litvinenko.  Later, in the small print, a motivated reader could discover that Prof Henry had been asked to comment by an employee of a Russian billionaire living in London, Boris Berezovsky.

Then there was the claim, made by Litvinenko’s close friend, Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev, that at their meeting in the Sushi bar, the Italian ‘academic’ Mario Scaramella had given Litvinenko “very important information about who killed Anna Politkovskaya”.  In other reports, Litvinenko fingered Scaramella as the likely murderer on behalf of the Russian secret services.  Scaramella himself asserted at his press conference that he had met the deceased at the Sushi Bar in order to hand over the printout of a document from a source connected to the FSB, the Russian security service, containing a ‘hit-list’ containing both their names.  Discerning readers would later discover that this was an email authored by Evgueni Limanov, who lives in France and runs an anti-Putin website funded by Boris Berezovsky.


A day in the life of Sasha Litvinenko
The famous last words of the victim as he distinctly heard “the beating of wings of the angel of death”, were defiant to the last: “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”  A portentous and well crafted media statement, composed by a patient who was apparently too incoherent to give a consistent account of events to the Metropolitan Police, and which was read out on the hospital steps by Alex Goldfarb, a ‘family friend’ of the deceased, - a friend who turned out to be the media spokesman of Boris Berezovsky. 

In his last days, Litvinenko was attended by highly skilled spin doctors, not only Alex Goldfarb, but  Lord Tim Bell, whose clients include Margaret Thatcher, Monsanto, and… Boris Berezovsky.  According to the Guardian, Bell handled media enquiries and arranged for photographs of the dying man to be circulated to the media.  But on the day of the funeral, the ‘friends’ fell out, as Goldfarb sought to downplay the statements by Litvinenko’s father and by Akhmed Zakayev that Litvinenko had converted to Islam.  Clearly that did not fit the image which the spin doctors wished to convey. 

For those disposed to study the colourful cast of characters behind the finely spun-curtain, there is not only entertainment but education to be had. 

The usual description of the deceased, a “fierce critic of Putin” has become a stock media phrase, vastly over-rating his credibility and concealing the nature of his activities.  His ‘criticisms’ included claims that the Russian authorities are the main force behind international terrorism and were involved in 9/11, as well as the accusation that Putin is a paedophile.  The vehicle for Litvinenko’s articles was a Chechen separatist website, although an interview in which he accuses Putin of responsibility for the 7/7 London bombings can be found on Indymedia.

Following his allegation that he had been instructed by the FSB to assassinate Berezovsky, he spent some time in prison for ‘abuse of office’, and then joined the latter in London; Berezovsky financed the publication of a book by him, gave him pocket money and provided him with a house.  The former security service colonel Litvinenko was reduced to the status of serfdom.

Accounts of Litvinenko’s actions suggest that he felt financially and emotionally unfulfilled in his position.  A Russian woman in London, Julia Svetlichnaja, has claimed that he bombarded her with emails and sought to involve her in a plot to blackmail prominent Russians.  Mario Scaramella has claimed that he told of how he smuggled nuclear material to Zurich from Russia in the year 2000.  Tittle tattle?  The boastings of a fantasist? Who knows.  A photo of himself which Litvinenko gave to Svetlichnaja,  showing him wearing a Scottish military cap and KGB gauntlets, wielding a Chechen sword in front of the Union Jack flag, is more reminiscent of a scene from Taxi Driver or Apocalypse Now than a day in the life of the average dissident human rights activist.

A taste of freedom

The character and politics of Litvinenko’s sponsor Berezovsky defy the conventional categories.  The end of communism allowed him to make the transition from being a mathematics professor to becoming the owner of Russia’s biggest car dealing firm, the oil company Sibneft, the national airline Aeroflot, and a media empire.  He was also appointed by Yeltsin as National Security Secretary.

Max Hastings’ Guardian article on November 27th promoted a clearly deliberate inversion of recent history:

“Why, having tasted freedom and democracy, should they [the Russians] wish to return to the murderous practices of Stalinism? How can they acquiesce in Putin's restoration of tyranny? Here is a nation suddenly granted wealth which might enable its people to become prosperous social democrats like us.

“Instead, to our bewilderment, Russia is institutionalising a state gangster culture which promises repression and ultimate economic failure for itself, fear and alienation from the rest of the world. We hear of few Russians at home or abroad who have achieved wealth through honest toil. Instead, the tools of success in Putin's universe are corruption, violence, vice and licensed theft on a colossal scale.”

Were this a true representation, the opinion polls which show Putin’s support in Russia as running at over 70% would indeed be bewildering.  But most Russians have already experienced "economic failure" - the catastrophic plunge into poverty in the 1990s.  And it was under Yeltsin that the oligarchs were licensed to thieve, kill and rule.


Paul Klebnikov: fierce critic of Berezovsky
A 1996 report from the business journal Forbes, headlined ‘Godfather of the Kremlin’, and subtitled ‘Power. Politics. Murder. Boris Berezovsky could teach the guys in Sicily a thing or two’, provides some clues on the nature of business and politics in Russia in the 1990s:

“That Berezovsky can thus play cozy with Russia's president [Yeltsin] explains a lot of what is happening in Russia these days. Russia is a bubbling cauldron of criminal organizations--Sicily on a giant scale. Last year some 40,000 people were murdered in Russia and 70,000 disappeared--probably never to be heard of again. The murder rate in Russia is three or four times higher than in New York City.

“Assassination is a tool of business competition. Scores of business leaders and media personalities have been killed. Ivan Kivelidi, a banker and founder of the Russian Business Roundtable, was murdered last year by poison (an obscure nerve toxin) applied to the rim of his coffee cup. Neither this nor any other of Russia's most famous contract killings has been solved.

In this violent world Boris Berezovsky looms like a giant shadow. Berezovsky recently claimed that he and six other top businessmen control 50% of the Russian economy…
In a recent interview with FORBES Berezovsky said: ‘Russia is undergoing a redistribution of property on a scale unprecedented in history. No one is satisfied--neither those who got nothing, nor those who got something, since even they feel they did not get enough.’

“…in addition to his auto dealership Berezovsky controls Russia's biggest national TV network. His control was solidified shortly after the first chairman of the network was assassinated gangland-style. Berezovsky was immediately fingered by the police as a key suspect, but the murder remains unsolved two years later…

“’It is no secret that Russian businessmen played the decisive role in President Yeltsin's victory,’ says Berezovsky. ‘It was a battle for our blood interests.’
Berezovsky and friends did whatever was necessary to prevent the Communists from gaining a victory. The Yeltsin campaign is facing allegations of massive financing violations. Legally, each party's campaign was limited to $3 million. The Yeltsin campaign is estimated to have spent at least $140 million…”

Berezovsky used the British courts to sue Forbes for these comments, forcing a retraction.  But Forbes showed their confidence in the author of the article, Paul Klebnikov, by making him their Moscow editor. Klebnikov went on to write a book entitled ‘Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia’ which was published in 2000.  Klebnikov was shot to death in the streets of Moscow in 2004 by unknown assassins.


But Berezovsky’s bid to lead Russia was defeated by a different scandal.  It was the revelation that he had taken Israeli citizenship which ensured that Putin, rather than Berezovsky, would take the reins of Russia.  This may have been an insurance policy rather than an ideological commitment by the oligarch.  Israel does not extradite its citizens.

“As scary as possible”

Based in London since 2001, Berezovsky has so far foiled the attempts of the Russian authorities to try him on murder and corruption charges; Litvinenko gave evidence as a witness in his asylum hearing.

Berezovsky has stated that he currently spends more time on promoting ‘civil rights’ than on his business interests.  A spokesman for Berezovsky told the Sunday Telegraph that his Civil Liberties Foundation has donated “about $30 million … to hundreds of different pro-democracy organisations.”  The Sunday Telegraph article noted that the Foundation had been generous to one Evgueni Limanov, who was later to send the notorious ‘hit list’ email to Mario Scaramella:

“Details of Mr Limanov's role running a website critical of the Russian government surfaced in the Moskovskii Komsomolets newspaper in 2002.

“It gave an account by a journalist, Oleg Sultanov, who claimed to have worked there ‘undercover’ as part of an exposé on Mr Berezovsky. Although the tone of the piece suggested that the author was no friend of Mr Berezovsky, it gave accurate details as to the precise location of Mr Limanov's office in the Alps. Mr Sultanov claimed that he was paid a total of $35,000 to help write material that would bring the Kremlin into disrepute.

“He wrote: ‘I was told straight out: think up whatever you want, the most important thing is to make it as scary as possible.’”

Berezovsky’s unnamed spokesman, although apparently unable to refer to any written accounts, played down the size of the donation:

“‘In 2002 we gave around $10,000 or $15,000, I don't remember exactly how much, to Mr Limanov to help him set up his website,’ he said. ‘We gave him the money as a grant and it is absolute nonsense to say he is in the pay of Mr Berezovsky.’”

The oligarch’s concept of civil rights has certainly taken him beyond national and ethnic prejudice. 

He was involved in the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine, covertly providing $15 million to the anti-Russian and pro-Western forces.  This donation, illegal in Ukrainian law, was revealed in September 2005 as the victorious orange factions fell out with each other; Timoshenko claimed that the Berezovsky millions had been accepted by Yuskchenko, while Yuskchenko alleged that it was Timoskenko’s group which had taken the cash.

The pro-democracy campaign in Ukraine had another curious feature.  A major vote-winner in the 2004/5 elections was the allegation that Yuskchenko was the victim of dioxin poisoning administered by agents of the ‘pro-Russian’ candidate Yanukovych.  The doctor who first made the diagnosis (without actually being involved in treating or testing the ‘victim’) was Professor John Henry of Queen Mary's Hospital in London.  While the media subsequently reported that the private Rudolfinerhaus clinic in Austria confirmed this finding, the chief medical doctor at the clinic, Dr Lothar Wicke, denied that this was the diagnosis; he was then forced to resign.  Yuschenko has repeatedly postponed the start of the official investigation into the ‘poisoning’, and is now in a coalition government together with Yanukovych, his alleged poisoner. 

Berezovsky has also been a staunch supporter of the Islamic separatist forces in Chechnya.  In 2004 he sought to impress on the Russian authorities the need to make concessions by announcing that he had information that the Chechen separatists had acquired nuclear materials. 

Smears for sale

Now briefly to our third man in this drama, the ‘academic expert’ on the smuggling of nuclear materials, Mario Scaramella.  British newspapers have carried stories aimed at casting suspicion on Scaramella as a possible FSB double agent; supporting this were the claims that he speaks English with a slight Russian accent, lacks the mannerisms of a typical Southern Italian and has admitted to having eaten in Pizza Hut- something which a real Neapolitan would apparently never do. 


'Professor' Mario Scaramella
More substantially, Naples University, where Scaramella claims to be a professor, would not confirm that he works there; the Environmental Crime Prevention Programme of which Scaramella is Secretary General has no real existence; and the rest of his CV is equally insubstantial.  The Italian newspaper La Republica has carried a story alleging that Scaramella has received CIA funding.  If so, US taxpayers should rest assured that Scaramella is frugal with their money; his trip to London, to give Litvinenko the printout of Limanov's ‘hit-list’ (which although it was an email was too sensitive to be forwarded electronically or sent by post) was made by Easyjet.

However insubstantial his credentials, Scaramella was a consultant to the Mitrokhin Commission on Soviet and post-Soviet intelligence links to Italy, which was headed by Paolo Guzzanti, a member of Berlusconi’s right wing Forza Italia party.  According to the Financial Times:

“Politicians in Mr Prodi’s centre-left coalition suspect that one purpose of the Mitrokhin commission, which was set up under Mr Berlusconi, was to plant material to discredit the centre-left, especially ahead of the April election. Mr Berlusconi’s party has ridiculed the idea of a smear campaign.

“‘They have tried to upset the country’s democracy,’ said Piero Fassino, leader of the Democrats of the Left, the largest party in Mr Prodi’s government. ‘A campaign of personal denigration and institutional destabilisation has been pursued.’”

Scaramella’s source for the most damaging smear, the claim that Prodi had been a KGB agent, was Litvinenko.   Not knowing that they were under surveillance by the Prosecutor’s Office in Naples, Guzzanti had a telephone conversation with Scaramella in which he pressurised the latter to sex-up the allegation. 

In another wiretapped conversation, Litvinenko cited former KGB officer and Western double agent Oleg Gordievsky in support of the allegation against Prodi.  RIA Novosti reported Gordievsky’s response:

“Gordievsky denied ever having said Prodi was a KGB agent or that he had been of interest to the Soviet secret services, and said such claims had come from Litvinenko.

“He said he met Scaramella on the request of the Mitrokhin Commission, a parliamentary body set up by former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi to investigate the activity of Soviet and post-Soviet spies in Italy, and that Scaramella, who advises the body, had done his best to obtain compromising information on Prodi…

“Gordievsky said Litvinenko had merely said what Scaramella wanted to hear, because he was in desperate financial straits and hoped to benefit from such cooperation.

“He added that Litvinenko had also discredited Prodi among some European MPs, who he said had asked him to confirm Litvinenko's allegations.”

A consideration of the characters and careers of the others involved in this tangled web would also make diverting reading: Akhmed Zakayev, wanted for terrorist offences by Russia, a member of the Chechen separatist ‘cabinet’ which includes Shamil Basayev, the man who has admitted being the organiser of the Beslan school siege; Andrei Lugovoi, former security chief for Berezovsky in the 1990s, who met Litvinenko in a hotel room on the day of the poisoning; Leonid Nevzlin, former CEO of the Yukos oil company and associate of Berezovsky, who met with Litvinenko in Israel…

Back to the future

One positive aspect of this affair is that the Latin phrase ‘cui bono’, meaning, who stands to gain, has come back into vogue.  But it is worth looking beyond ‘cui bono’ for the death of Litvinenko (assuming that it was a murder rather than an accident) and considering who stands to gain by the portrayal of Russia as an authoritarian state run by a ‘regime’ rather than a government – as distinct from our civilised Western democracies - and by the isolation and weakening of Russia.  Further, as some have asked, is this the onset of a new Cold War?

Berezovsky has ambitions which are relevant to British and US interests. He sees his interests in a weakened and isolated Russia, with hostile states on its frontiers and a continuing war in Chechnya.  He has expressed the hope that a worsening of the latter conflict would lead to the intervention of Western ‘peacekeeping’ troops on territory which is regarded by the Russians as integral to their nation; this might provoke a crisis in which he and other oligarchs could sweep back to power.

To consider the comparison with the Cold War, we need to look at what was special about the period of about 45 years from the end of World War Two.  This was a time in which there was a relatively stable and institutionalised conflict between blocs, with regular spy scandals, a massive arms race, sanctions and blockades, and frequent wars on the periphery (Greece, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Southern Africa, Afghanistan, Nicaragua…).  This was a struggle between capitalism and communism: all the other major capitalist powers were so economically and politically weak compared to the USA, and were so frightened of the spectre of communism, that they accepted an anti-Soviet pax-Americana, institutionalised by a web of economic, diplomatic and military arrangements.

Before the Cold War, and even before 1917, it was the norm for the great powers to struggle overtly and covertly over resources and spheres of influence, making and breaking alliances along the way.  A scandal, a diplomatic incident or an assassination could provide the pretext for the outbreak of war.  Russia and Britain were allies against France, enemies over the Crimea and Central Asia, and allies against Germany.


Crimean War: Russian forces destroying the Ottoman fleet at Sinope, 1853. Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky
For those who forgot all previous history, the relatively long period of Cold War peace between the major capitalist powers- Britain, Western Europe, Japan and the USA - projected itself into the illusion that the end of communism would usher in a new world order in which ideologies would no longer lead us into major conflicts between powerful countries.

Indeed, under the continued dominance of the USA, the period from 1989 was characterised by actions of the strongest capitalist countries against a series of much weaker ‘rogue’ and ‘failed’ states.  But Russia even under Yeltsin was never invited into the cosy imperialist club; it was never on the agenda of the USA to help the Russians, in the words of Max Hastings, “to become prosperous social democrats like us”.  Rather, the shock-privatisations and liberalisations which the Western agencies insisted on amounted to a reverse Marshall Plan, allowing the rising gangster-capitalists to asset-strip the country and send the proceeds abroad. Meanwhile NATO’s borders rolled Eastwards and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia became sites for US-backed regimes and US bases.

But things have been changing again since Putin became president. Key factors include the rise of China, the increase in oil and gas prices, and the removal of the oligarchs from direct political power.  Russia and China are united in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which is reducing the scope for US influence in Asia; and Ukraine has suspended moves to enter NATO.  According to a Washington Post article:

“‘Because of the political situation in Ukraine, we will have to take a pause,’ Yanukovych told reporters in Brussels after talks with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and NATO ambassadors. ‘We have to convince society.’”

If he really wants to do this, he has a long way to go. The article cited an opinion poll showing that 60% of Ukrainians are opposed to NATO membership.

And now, as Max Hastings bemoans in the Guardian:

“…we must confront a defiant new Russia, fortified by possession of a substantial part of the world's oil and gas reserves in an era when energy competition will be critical…

“At the heart of Putin's policies is a determination to restore the old Soviet Union's might and influence. It is hard to see how these would be exercised towards ends that the west would consider benign.”

Russia is standing up rather than bending over, so “we must confront” it.  Post Soviet, capitalist Russia is becoming an entity able to defend and even advance its national interests, in alliance or rivalry with other states.  

Forked tongue

In his 4th December speech confirming the renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear missile system, Tony Blair named four other countries as being ‘major nuclear powers’: the USA, Russia, France and China.  Taking it for granted that, to the extent that the Trident system is a deterrent, it is a deterrent against major nuclear powers, Blair argued:

“It is written as a fact by many that there is no possibility of nuclear confrontation with any major nuclear power. Except that it isn't a fact. Like everything else germane to this judgment, it is a prediction. It is probably right. But certain? No, we can't say that.”

Blair continued by referring to the attempt of North Korea, and the alleged attempt of Iran, to acquire nuclear weapons capability.  But he could not and did not claim that these countries have the potential to become major nuclear powers.  Then he claimed that it is not “utterly fanciful… to imagine states sponsoring nuclear terrorism from their soil.”  How the threat or use of Trident missiles would be helpful in such a situation remained a mystery.


Trident II D5 missile launch
He did not bring up the value of possessing a strategic nuclear weapons system as a guarantee of a place at the ‘top table’, to international power and influence.

We were left with the need for Trident as an insurance policy against the possibility of some future military confrontation with one or more of the existing ‘major nuclear powers.’  And as recent events have shown, to imagine that is not utterly fanciful.


References and further reading:-

 

Max Hastings: http://www.guardian.co.uk/russia/article/0,,1957728,00.html

Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/free_forbes/1996/1230/5815090a.html

Berezovsky's Israeli citizenship: http://64.233.183.104/search?q=cache:cbUYxzdfSY4J:www.counterpunch.org/weir02172005.html+berezovsky+israel&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1

And http://www.warsawvoice.pl/archiwum.phtml/388/

Tony Blair's Trident statement: http://www.politics.co.uk/issueoftheday/foreign-policy/international-institutions/nuclear-deterrence/tony-blairs-trident-statement-in-full-$460068$459890.htm

Evening Standard: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/news/article-23375897-details/Exclusive:%20Sushi%20bar%20man%20is%20nuclear%20waste%20expert/article.do

The Scotsman: http://news.scotsman.com/uk.cfm?id=1787322006

Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/c1eb2990-8158-11db-864e-0000779e2340.html

International Herald Tribune:  http://iht.com/articles/2006/12/08/news/poison.php

Sunday Telegraph:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/12/03/nspy103.xml

RIA Novosti http://en.rian.ru/world/20061207/56613662.html 

Justin Raimondo: http://www.antiwar.com/justin/?articleid=10116