Former FBI special agent Clint Watts, testifying at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing on Russian meddling in last year’s elections, had an arresting message for his interlocutors: “Follow the trail of dead Russians”, he said. Watts, who admits to not being much of a Russia expert, was probably referring specifically to the death of Oleg Erovinkin, a former KGB general shot twice in the back of the head on December 26 in Moscow. Erovikin was said to have cooperated with former British spy Michael Steele in compiling the notorious “dossier” alleging various connections between the Trump team and Russian intelligence.
Most of the coverage that followed Watts’ pronouncement went through the litany of Russian diplomats that have turned up dead recently. In addition to Erovinkin, most included the death of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, Russia’s Ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, the Russian consul in Athens, Andrei Malanin, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Peter Polshikov, and an officer at the Russian consulate in New York, Sergei Krivov.
It would be a mistake to assume that all of these deaths were somehow related. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vaunted “Power Vertical” resembles more a mafia family than some kind of well-structure corporation, and as such leads to all sorts of gangland score-settling up and down its ranks that rarely require approval from the very top.
That said, the various unexplained deaths and random assassinations do sometimes suggest the outlines of a broader plot. Case in point: the mysterious death of Russia’s long-serving Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin.
When Churkin passed away on February 20 from what was officially declared a heart attack, Russian commentators noted that his death closely followed on the heels of explosive testimony by exiled Russian Duma lawmaker Denis Voronenkov, who earlier that month confirmed to the Ukrainian Attorney General that Vladimir Putin had in fact received a letter from former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych begging Russia to send troops to Ukraine in 2014. The letter in question, the commentators noted, had been presented by Ambassador Churkin to the United Nations Security Council in March of that year, days before the Crimea annexation. Putin asked for (and received) permission from the Russian Senate to send armed forces abroad on that same day that Churkin appeared at the UN.
Surprisingly, two days after Churkin’s death, Viktor Yanukovych was interviewed on state-run TV, claiming for the first time that he hadn’t written any such letter to Vladimir Putin. “It was not a letter but a statement. I haven’t committed treason. I was trying to protect my people and to do so within the limits of my authority”, Yanukovych told reporters.
The broadcast of Yanukovych’s most recent statement was quickly followed by an endorsement from the Kremlin. On March 16 of this year, Putin’s Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that there was “no official letter registered by Russia’s Presidential Administration”. Answering the question about Churkin reading the letter at the UN, Peskov said he didn’t know anything about this. (Putin himself publicly mentioned Yanukovych’s request in 2014.)
Then, a month after Ambassador Churkin’s death and Yanukovich’s statement, Denis Voronenkov was shot dead in broad daylight in Kyiv.
As noted above, this could just have been a coincidence.
For one, violent score-settling in Russia has been a fact of life since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the 1990s, people being shot in broad daylight on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg was a commonplace. Not infrequently, people were even assassinated by rocket-propelled grenade.
And Denis Voronenkov had an impressive number of enemies among the Russian siloviki who could conceivably want him dead. Before he met his untimely death, Voronenkov, a member of the Russian Communist Party, was widely known as the “Pokemon catcher” for calling for the FSB to ban the Pokemon Go in Russia at the height of its craze. He memorably called it “an American security services’ product aimed at Russian homeland security”. But to those paying closer attention, Voronenkov was also known as a ruthless corporate raider who worked with and for a particular group of the siloviki. Voronenkov was involved in the notorious Three Whales case, a huge smuggling and money laundering scheme that ended up with a nasty fight breaking out among the various stakeholders. It was around this time that Voronenkov self-avowedly made a powerful enemy of an allegedly former (and quite possibly still active) FSB General, Anton Feoktistov, a protegé of Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin. Voronenkov fled Russia last year after a criminal investigation was opened against him; he publicly blamed Feoktistov for the investigation being initiated. After Voronenkov’s murder, his ally, another Russian Duma member in exile Ilya Ponomarev fingered Feoktistov for having hired the hitman.
Beyond Feoktisov, there were plenty of other security services types who might want to see Voronenkov silenced. As Ponomarev also said, “[Voronenkov] knew a lot about what is the weakest spot of the Putin’s regime—about their financial flows.” One of the projects he was pursuing while an exile in Kyiv, Voronenkov confided to Ponomarev, was to found a private center for investigating money laundering by Russian siloviki. As regular readers know, money laundering is a big business for these guys. Everything from the Magnitsky case to the more recent Moldovan scheme is being run through the FSB.
Ambassador Churkin, for his part, at 65, died at just the actuarial “expected” age for a Russian man. It really could have been a heart attack, as official sources indicate, and keeping the results of a diplomat’s autopsy secret is indeed correct according to protocol. Nothing to see here.
But maybe it wasn’t a coincidence. Maybe it had something to do with Crimea after all.
We can’t rule out that Churkin was poisoned. Removing unwanted persons by poisoning has been a favorite tactic of the Russian secret services for a long time. The poisoning of FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko by a radioactive isotope of polonium was only discovered by accident. And British authorities are still investigating the suspcious circumstances behind the demise of a crucial witness in the Magnitsky case—Russian businessman Aleksander Perepilichny, who died in 2012. (Toxicologists claim they found a rare poison in the man’s body, residue from the poisonous plant Gelsemium elegans. The symptoms of Gelsemium poisoning are similar to the for cardiac arrhythmia. The hearings in the case are scheduled for June of this year.) In addition, two Russian generals who played key roles in the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, Aleksandr Shushukin, 52, and Igor Sergun, 59, died a month apart the winter before last due to sudden heart failure.
As for Voronenkov, his willingness to testify as to the existence of the letter could have sealed his fate. The way he was murdered—not a silent heart attack, but a very public, telegenic execution—might indicate that the Kremlin wanted to send a message. With the Russian economy contracting over the past three years, the fight for a place at the money trough has gotten more pointed. The nastier the fight, the more losers there are; some of these bitter losers might be tempted to turn to the West, and give up what they know in exchange for some kind of amnesty. The message is simple: don’t.
But still, why does the Yanukovych letter matter to the Kremlin? After all, if it does exist, the only person it directly threatens is Viktor Yanukovych himself. The former Ukrainian President is under several criminal investigations in Ukraine, including embezzlement, ordering the killing of protesters on the Maidan, and treason. Last month, treason charges against Yanukovych were brought to court. If he is found guilty, his property and assets could be confiscated in absentia.
But beyond that, progress in Ukrainian court is likely to get Yanukovych summoned to the Hague. In 2014, the International Criminal Court refused to open a case on the Maidan crimes because it didn’t see them as “systematic”. But since then, cooperation between Kyiv and prosecutors in the Netherlands has kicked up a notch, with the ICC getting access to the Ukrainians’ files on Yanukovych. And Ukraine’s Attorney General said in November of last year that the ICC concurred that the crimes on Maidan—using deadly weapons against protesters—were part of criminal chain of responsibility that “led to an aggressive war by Russia and Russian-backed separatists against Ukraine”.
That kind of language represents a big brewing headache for the Russians—and Putin personally. The Russian President is doubtlessly aware that most international prosecutors would love to get any purchase to open a case that implicates him. Once an investigation starts, who knows where it will go? And an official request for foreign military intervention would presumably be crucial evidence in any such investigation.
Would Yanukovych, a man now without a country, sing for foreign prosecutors in exchange for some kind of clemency? Probably not, especially if the Kremlin sets him up properly in some fancy dacha and refuses to extradite him. But with his own retirement appearing on the horizon, Putin almost certainly doesn’t want this can of worms opened at all. Any big international trial that implicates him represents a threat to him properly enjoying the fruits of his service to his country into his dotage.
And when something or someone threatens Russia’s President, he usually takes care of it.