When Vitaly Churkin, Russia's top United Nations envoy, collapsed suddenly from an apparent heart failure recently, it triggered widespread and predictable murmuring about possible foul play. With so many sudden and mysterious deaths at the upper levels of the Russosphere during the Putin years, chiefly among his opponents, it's no surprise that rumors abound even when a stalwart loyalist like Churkin dies. The actual causes of many of the untimely deaths, like those of Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov cases, however, have been considerably less mysterious. Clear assassinations of that kind naturally leave a cloud of suspicion over seemingly innocent but abrupt deaths—and, there have been an inordinate number. Indeed, I noted in a recent column that five prominent Kremlin-linked deaths have occurred in the UK—including Litvinenko, and Alexander Perepilichny whose demise seemed inexplicable until a mysterious Himalayan poison was found in his stomach tissue as this article in The Atlantic explains. All of this might also explain why former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, compiler of the notorious Trump 'dossier', went underground in his own country.
The Atlantic article goes into detail about how the KGB, over the decades, operated a laboratory to develop secret poisons for use against political enemies. We know from history books that Joseph Stalin personally ordered such executions; he liked to be closely informed. The question is, in our day, does Putin work the same way? Is he a Stalinesque level of monster? Does the Kremlin dispatch stealthy assassins to stalk and murder enemies of the state around the world with Putin fully in the know? From what I've learned in two decades of covering Russian shenanigans—I suspect not but, like a mafia godfather, it seems certain that an authoritarian like Putin who exercises strict control over the state apparatus, is well aware of the hits and allows them to take place rather in the manner of Henry IV who, referring to his nemesis Thomas Becket, asked “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”. But worse. More like the mafia requiring proof of allegiance, as in a public act of self-incrimination or a sacrifice offered to the leader.
Consider the fates of Litvinenko and Nemtsov. The former, a one-time FSB officer, got into trouble for blowing the whistle on the dirty deeds of his country's domestic secret services. Litvinenko then fled to Britain in 2000 and died there in 2006 of radioactive polonium poisoning. His real first-hand knowledge of Russian dark ops derived from his access in the 1990's though he continued to make fresh allegations against the Kremlin up to his last days. He asserted that Putin had ordered the death of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. He also asserted that Putin was a pedophile. In later years, his accusations grew wilder but his evidence thinner. In effect, rightly or wrongly, his revelations no longer stuck. So why would Putin bother to mount elaborate plots to eliminate Litvinenko just as his credibility ebbed?
I heard one theory from a visiting Baltic intelligence official while I was reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia in 2012. In brief, he claimed that a one-time Georgian oligarch living in the UK, for many years virulently anti-Putin, had decided to change sides. He made overtures to the Kremlin. Officials in Putin's entourage essentially asked the oligarch to prove his bona fides. Why should they believe him? What did he have to offer? The oligarch offered Litvinenko's life. He could do so because they were friends, allied anti-Putinites living in Britain—and Litvinenko trusted him. So he set up the meeting with the killers telling Litvinenko that they had fresh information for him. The rest is public knowledge. The oligarch's name was Arkady 'Badri' Patrikatsishvili. He too died suspiciously and suddenly at his Surrey mansion soon after Litvinenko.
The case of Boris Nemtsov's assassination also suggests that eager to please volunteers were freelancing perhaps to gain favor in the Kremlin. I wrote elsewhere of how Nemtsov's public murder by Chechens caused an uprising in Putin’s entourage of cronies—they didn't approve of unwashed Chechens interfering in Russian affairs even to kill an opposition figure. (Putin disappeared for ten days while he settled the power struggle.) Given that the investigation into this murder, like so many others when outside freelancers offer sacrificial victims to the boss and the boss accepts the gift—nobody has yet been prosecuted for the crime—next time it could be any one of the cronies. Indeed, so indignant was Putin’s inner circle of the intrusion onto their turf that Russia's security services quickly leaked video of the shooting and even named the Chechens involved and accused Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's strongman, of orchestrating the murder. All those indignant cronies especially those at the head of security services have since been replaced and their various agencies conglomerated under Putin's direct control. Ramzan Kadyrov remains untouched.
Nemtsov and Litvinenko are just two prominent examples of this mafia-like approach to political executions within Russia and abroad. Suffice to say, the gangster ethos prevails around Putin: to trust you, the boss must have a hold over you. For that, you need to commit a crime as a kind of sacrifice to the boss—the sacrifice both of the victim and of yourself. You are never free from then on. The downside is you may ultimately need to be eliminated for knowing too much. And that might explain the sudden death of several diplomats or loyalists. Aside from Churkin, there has also been top foreign service official Andrey Malanin, who was found dead in his Athens apartment on January 9th. Churkin may have known too much about the Kremlin’s apparent meddling in the US presidential election. For his part, Malanin’s inside knowledge of Russian financial shenanigans in Greek Cyprus may have done him in. The mysterious death in November 2015 of billionaire Mikhail Lesin, former close aide to Putin, in a hotel room in Washington D.C. still remains unexplained. Rumor has it that he was talking to the FBI.