Putin Tests the West

Kremlin watchers: Russian poisonings, election meddling require harsh response

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An uptick in tense U.S.-Russia relations saw Moscow expel 60 diplomats from Russia Thursday as retaliation for the United States ordering the removal of 60 Russian officials Monday.

At least 27 nations have expelled Russian diplomats as well, thus standing in solidarity with the United Kingdom where a nerve gas poisoning nearly claimed the life of a former Russian spy and his daughter March 4. For Russia observers who have been urging a tougher stance against the Putin regime, the White House move was long in coming.

The gesture signaled that the administration had made up its mind about Kremlin involvement in the attack, which left former double agent Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia in critical condition.

"This was a demonstrative attack, really a kind of terrorist attack," according to Luke Harding, a Kremlin specialist with the Guardian newspaper, speaking to a conference of Kremlin watchers called PutinCon on March 16. "The fact is, the many agents in Russia's FSB (the Federal Security Service) are willing to cooperate with Western intelligence," he said.

The security at the meeting was tight, and the location of the event was kept undisclosed until hours before it began.

One of the presenters, Vladimir Kara-Murza, claims he survived two assassination attempts by poisoning and went on to continue his advocacy work at Open Russia. PutinCon was created and funded by the Oslo-based Human Rights Foundation, which aims to expose the abuses of dictators worldwide.

The Skripal poison attack recalls the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in the United Kingdom in November 2006.

"The real story is that the Kremlin is sending a message to these agents. We can do this to you and your family," Harding told the PutinCon conference in mid-town Manhattan.

The Skripal poisoning was timed two weeks prior to the Russian presidential election, and was intended to impact several targets, the United Kingdom, which is politically isolated, and the Russian civilian population, according to Harding. "It plays well [to the Russians]. There is a kind of dynamic of confrontation where Russia is under siege by hostile Western conspiracy," Harding said.

To no one's surprise, President Vladimir Putin waltzed into his 19th year of power as either president or premier of the Russian Federation on March 18, despite allegations of ballot stuffing.

The meddling into the U.S. elections of 2016 was scripted by Putin's entrepreneurial allies in St. Petersburg and mentioned in Independent Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of 13 Russian nationals on Feb. 16. The agent of meddling was the Internet Research Agency, also known as the Troll Factory, which employed thousands of Russians to post fake news in social media and news platforms in many countries. The Troll Factory was financed by Vladimir Litvinenko, a close aide to Putin since the 1990s and today a billionaire oligarch, according to Olga Litvinenko, his estranged daughter, who also presented at PutinCon.

Olga Litvinenko, who served two terms in St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly before breaking ranks with her father in 2011, dished a litany of accusations against Putin and her dad. Her father did more than assist Putin's plagiarized doctoral dissertation on economics. "My dad actually was the author," she said.

After Putin came to power in 1999, the elder Litvinenko, a rector at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, as well as Putin's political campaign director in 1998, headed a company that sold dissertations for anyone who would pay for them, Olga Litvinenko said. But the schemes of Putin and his cronies were diverse, including illicit export of metals, trafficking in burial services and the covert acquisition of St. Petersburg hotels, she said. "My father is the richest institute rector in the world," she has said.

"The Russian oligarchs are not the actual owners of what they have in Russia," according to Nikita Kulachenkov, a chief investigator at the Anti-Corruption Foundation based in Moscow. "They might lose everything in a single day, if Putin resigns or changes his mind. So, they will do anything to prevent that single day from arriving."

Take the case of Oleg Deripaska, the mega-rich metals broker who was once considered Russia's richest man, worth $28 billion. Deripaska nearly lost everything due to mounting debts and the 2007-2008 financial crisis but found a financial rescue, some believe, by Putin's administration. Nonetheless, the true owner of the company is in doubt. In a conversation with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, overheard by "escort ladies" and posted on their Facebook pages, "Deripaska was deferring to the foreign ministry official as if he were his boss, because he [the deputy foreign minister] is his boss," Kulachenkov said.

The consensus of many at PutinCon was that Putin is not merely an acquisitive kleptocrat, but a threat to his own people and to the West.

"Perhaps the recent Skripal poisoning will open the eyes of the West," said Amy Knight, an American scholar specializing in Russian history. "How many more brazen murders will it take before we take steps to prevent Mr. Putin carrying out more of these crimes?"

Douglas Burton

Douglas Burton   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Douglas Burton is an independent writer specializing in terrorism and a former State Department official who served in Iraq.

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