The Return of Wetwork: KGB Goons Radiated a Former Associate in London

Putin's Kremlin employs assassination abroad as state policy in a manner not seen in Moscow since Stalin

Former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by Polonium-210, according to an extensive investigation conducted by British authorities.

Former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by Polonium-210, according to an extensive investigation conducted by British authorities.

This week’s announcement by a British court that Russian spies murdered Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006, made global headlines. Particularly because the massive report, based on a multi-year investigation, concluded that the Kremlin must have approved the assassination at the highest levels, “probably” including President Vladimir Putin himself.

This is a big story, given the sensational manner of Litvinenko’s death, notwithstanding that the complicity of Russian officialdom in the murder has been obvious for years, while the likelihood that Mr. Putin green-lighted the hit could be news only to those unacquainted with how his regime actually works.

The essential facts of the case were known almost from the outset.

Mr. Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer who had moved to Britain, where he received sanctuary, met with two Russians on November 1, 2006, at London’s Millennium Hotel, where Litvinenko had tea. That tea had been poisoned, apparently by one of the two Russians he met, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitri Kovtun, and Litvinenko soon fell seriously ill, dying in agony three weeks later.

He was killed by polonium-210, a rare and highly radioactive element that British investigators assess came from a Russian reactor. Moscow’s motive for murdering Mr. Litvinenko was simple: as a onetime officer of Soviet state security, the KGB, and its successor, the Russian Federal Security Service or FSB, he was a defector in the minds of his former employers, as well as Mr. Putin, himself a former KGB officer. Litvinenko was collaborating with British intelligence and was on their payroll. Of particular concern to the Kremlin, Litvinenko was telling London (and in some cases the Western press) details about high-level corruption in Moscow, as well as secret FSB ties to Al-Qa’ida, and even allegations of pedophilia by Mr. Putin.

Alexander Litvinenko just months before his assassination in London.

Alexander Litvinenko just months before his assassination in London.

All this was explosive to the Kremlin, which takes a dim view of any defectors, much less ones who blab to foreign reporters. “Traitors always end badly,” Mr. Putin once explained, and the involvement of Mr. Lugovoy, a onetime KGB officer, in Litvinenko’s death provides compelling, if circumstantial, evidence of Kremlin culpability behind the assassination. “There are no ‘former’ intelligence officers,” as Mr. Putin has stated on more than one occasion.

Kremlin involvement in assassinations abroad is nothing new, it was once standard Moscow policy, but it lay dormant for a half-century, only to be resurrected by Mr. Putin. In Stalin’s time, the Soviet secret police murdered enemies abroad with gusto, what the KGB called “wetwork” (from the Russian mokroye delo – “wet affairs”). Throughout the 1930s, opponents of the Bolshevik regime living in exile were targeted by Stalin’s spies for murder. Some were kidnapped off the streets of Paris, never to be seen again, while others were blown apart by bombs – in one case in Rotterdam, disguised as a box of chocolates.

This clandestine dirty war heated up in the late 1930s, during Stalin’s Great Purge. Several Kremlin spies, fearing (often correctly) they were soon to be murdered by the regime, defected to safety in the West. Some were hunted down and killed by Soviet agents. In one case, a star Soviet spymaster who was unwise enough to send a letter to Stalin announcing his defection was soon machine-gunned to death on a Swiss road.

The most famous of such hits was the assassination of Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s Public Enemy Number One, in Mexico City, in 1940. The renegade Bolshevik was killed gruesomely with an ice axe through his skull wielded by Ramón Mercader, a Spanish Communist and Soviet agent. After serving almost two decades in Mexican jail for the killing, Mercader was released to a hero’s welcome in Moscow, which gave him their highest decoration for taking out Trotsky.

Such wetwork continued until Stalin’s death in 1953, with numerous murders and attempted murders outside the USSR of people the Kremlin considered enemies. Since the Soviet secret police usually covered its tracks well, sometimes using hard-to-detect poisons to kill, it’s difficult to say precisely how many “state enemies” in the West were assassinated by Stalin.

However, after his death Soviet acumen at such killings began to slip. In an embarrassing incident in 1954, a KGB hitman sent to West Germany to murder a Russian émigré had second thoughts and defected to the Americans, spilling the beans about Moscow’s secret murder techniques. Five years later, the KGB assassination of Stepan Bandera, a top Ukrainian émigré, in Munich, by cyanide sprayed in his face, turned into a debacle when the killer defected and told West German authorities all about the hit, including that it had been approved by the top Kremlin leadership.

In response, the KGB dropped this line of lethal business. Hits undertaken by KGB officers exposed Moscow to too much risk, especially since vigilant Western security services were on the lookout for Soviet assassins. To the end of the Cold War, the Soviet secret police eschewed such risky operations in the West. Henceforth even prominent defectors were left alone, often to the displeasure of KGB officers who remembered Stalin’s rougher ways.

Thus, in 1978, when their ally Bulgaria approached the KGB for help with assassinating Georgi Markov, an émigré working for the BBC and the source of bad press for the Communist regime in Sofiya, Yuri Andropov, the KGB chairman, ordered his spies to provide Bulgarian state security, the rough-hewn DS, with technical assistance, but not to get anywhere near the actual murder. Soviet spies gave the DS a new secret weapon, a pellet gun disguised as an umbrella that fired a tiny, poison-laden pellet, and it was used in London by the hitman, a Danish agent known to the Bulgarians by the covername Piccadilly, who shot Markov with it in September 1978. The émigré died of ricin poisoning four days later and his killing, the infamous “umbrella murder,” remains an open case.

However, even that assassination was something of an outlier, and contrary to movie depictions, East Bloc security services conducted few assassinations abroad during the latter half of the Cold War, while the KGB stayed away from risky wetwork in the West. The only Communist regime that conducted assassinations abroad as a matter of course was Marshal Tito’s, whose security agency, Yugoslavia’s notorious UDBA, killed something like a hundred émigrés in the West between the mid-1960s and the end of the Cold War, including several assassinations in the United States.

Since Vladimir Putin ascended to rule the Kremlin in 1999, however, wetwork has made a noticeable return in Moscow. Several prominent members of the Chechen resistance have been assassinated by the FSB and Russian military intelligence, known as GRU, with bombs from aircraft, tampered explosives, even a letter laced with poison.

Those killings happened in or near Russia, but Mr. Putin has not shied away from assassinations far from home. In February 2004, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the former president of Chechnya’s exile government, was blown apart by a bomb placed in his SUV in Qatar, where he had sought sanctuary. The blast also killed two of Yandarbiyev’s bodyguards and seriously injured his twelve year-old son.

Russian tradecraft had grown sloppy after decades of disuse, and Qatari authorities arrested two GRU officers and convicted them for their role in the assassination, which investigators claimed had been approved by Russia’s defense minister. The killers received life sentences but, in a deal with Moscow, the spies were allowed to return home to serve their sentences in Russian prison. Nothing of the sort happened, and the men instead received a hero’s welcome in January 2005, receiving decorations for their work, and disappeared from public view.

The Litvinenko hit must be viewed in this context of how Mr. Putin uses his intelligence services abroad – including wetwork. Several Chechen exiles have died mysteriously in recent years, and links to the FSB or GRU are suspected by Western intelligence. In a typical case, the shooting death of a Chechen émigré in Vienna in January 2009 was determined by Austrian investigators to be the handiwork of Ramzan Kadyrov, Mr. Putin’s puppet strongman in Chechnya. It’s difficult to conceive that the flamboyant Mr. Kadyrov, for all his bluster, would dare to assassinate his enemies in Europe without some sort of go-ahead from the Kremlin.

Similarly, the murders of five Chechen émigrés in Istanbul between 2009 and 2011 are believed by Turkish investigators to be the work of Russian spies. Such hits, apparently by the FSB or GRU, in Turkey continue to the present day, and recent investigation reveals that Russian complicity in these assassinations is all but certain. Wetwork against Chechen exiles, who are considered by Moscow to be terrorists, would be fully consistent with longstanding Kremlin practice as well as with statements by Mr. Putin about killing Chechen militants anywhere they seek refuge, “even in the outhouse,” as the Russian leader once famously put it.

Kremlin wetwork in the West may extend beyond Mr. Litvinenko. British investigators are now reexamining the deaths of several Russian émigrés that appear suspicious. Boris Berezovsky, a prominent Russian oligarch and supporter of Litvinenko, as well as a leading anti-Putinist, died of an apparent suicide at his English country home in March 2013, but questions linger about the case, not least because the coroner’s inquest was unable to determine the exact circumstances of his death.

The February 2008 death of Mr. Berezovsky’s good friend Badri Patarkatsishvili, Georgia’s top oligarch, at his own English estate, reportedly of a heart attack, remains shrouded in mystery too. Even more ominous is the November 2012 death of Alexander Perepilichny outside London, who collapsed while jogging, an apparent heart attack. However, the forty-four year old Russian émigré had blown the whistle on high-level Kremlin corruption, and investigation revealed the presence in his body of traces of a rare poisonous plant. Given longstanding Russian interest in hard-to-detect poisons, and the mysterious death of numerous critics of Mr. Putin inside Russia, it’s hardly far-fetched to think may be the handiwork of the FSB. “Was this all the Russians? We may never know for sure, but this many murky deaths in Britain of Russians who were ‘inconvenient’ to the Kremlin means you have to ask questions,” explained a veteran British Special Branch detective to me about these cases.

Has Mr. Putin been conducting wetwork in the United States too? Many are beginning to wonder, particularly in connection with the recent death of Mikhail Lesin, a Kremlin media maven and former member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle. A decade ago, Mr. Lesin created Russia Today (since rebranded as RT) as a global media outlet for Moscow, but by late 2014 he had fallen from Kremlin favor, and he moved to the United States. He was soon of interest to the FBI for his involvement in high-level money laundering by the Putin regime, and at his death Mr. Lesin appears to have been cooperating with the FBI and the Department of Justice about his involvement in financial crimes in Moscow.

A longtime Kremlin insider like Lesin talking to the FBI would cause nightmares in Moscow, while Mr. Putin and the fellow KGB veterans who form his coterie of trusted advisers would view him as a defector to American intelligence. The punishment for such turncoats is no secret in Russia these days.

The circumstances of Mr. Lesin’s death raise questions. The fifty-seven year-old was found dead at Washington, DC’s swank Dupont Circle Hotel on November 5, 2015, an apparent heart attack. However, the official coroner’s report is pending, and rumors have swirled that he was murdered by Russian intelligence. American security agencies have questions about this high-profile case.

Mr. Lesin’s death, like those in Britain, inevitably brings to mind a famous unsolved death decades ago in Washington, DC. Walter Krivitsky, a top GRU spymaster, was found dead in his hotel room in the nation’s capital on February 10, 1941. While the cause of death, a gunshot to the head, was evident, how he died remains the subject of controversy more than seven decades later. Krivitsky, who supervised GRU operations in Western Europe, detested Stalin, defected, and told Western governments about Soviet espionage abroad, wetwork included. That the Kremlin wanted Krivitsky dead is certain, but the possibility that the veteran spy, despondent over the recent murder of Trotsky, took his own life was never ruled out.

We should hope that the deaths of Mikhail Lesin and other Russian exiles who got on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin won’t linger in mystery for decades like Walter Krivitsky’s. That the Kremlin murdered Alexander Litvinenko seems certain, while a Russian role in assassinations of several others in the West looks increasingly likely. All that can be said with full confidence at this point is that if Western governments don’t take a hard line with Mr. Putin about his regime’s wetwork, demanding that it cease, Russian secret agents will continue their killing spree in our countries.