Exclusive: Litvinenko’s Assassination and Iran’s Nuclear Program Linked by…Putin’s Russia

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE December 1, 2009
Over the last week, Russia was again at the center of two important and contentious issues – both making headlines. One involves an increasingly chilly relationship between Russia and the United Kingdom, as the latter continues to press the former for information about the assassination of a British Citizen – Alexander Litvinenko, which by all accounts was likely carried out by Russians using a poison that was obtained in Russia – Polonium 210 (Po210). Which Russians committed the act, under the authority of whom and for what purpose, remain shrouded in mystery. The name Vladimir Putin is inextricably linked in the saga. The other issue – a nuclear Iran and Russia’s role in arming, protecting and advancing Tehran’s ambitions. The name Vladimir Putin should also be associated with the growing threat of Iran. 
 
Saga 1: The Death of Alexander Litvinenko
 
November 2006 marks the third anniversary of his murder. It has been a saga straight out of a Robert Ludlum novel. And still unsolved!
 
The fingers point in several directions. How Russian! Chekov would have appreciated the plots and subplots. The British are still stymied by yet another Soviet-style murder (Litvinenko) of a dissident who sought political asylum in the UK, killed on their sovereign soil. Recall that Georgi Markov was murdered on a London street – a ricin-filled pellet was fired into his leg from a special umbrella weapon designed by KGB technical directorate. The Brits assert Litvinenko was killed in 2006 by former KGB officer Sergei Lugovoi, who remains influential, protected and living in Russia. Not surprisingly, Duma members in Russia suggest Litvinenko was working for the British Government or Boris Berezovsky. Some suggest Berezovsky had Litvinenko killed, and then used the murder to further denigrate Putin by asserting ol’ Vlad was behind the murder. Berezovsky had the resources and moral flexibility to sacrifice a friend for his own ends. What they are remain elusive – stated aim to undermine Putin an arch nemesis, or is Berezovsky in fact working in some convoluted strategy for Putin? All things Russian! Just because Putin was supposed to have ordered Berezovsky’s death doesn’t mean there aren’t mutual interests in 2009, even if old Boris is or is not working for the Brits? Given the body count in Russia of journalists who disagree with Putin and Putin Lite (Medvedev), if Putin really wanted him dead would Boris still have a pulse? Both are ruthless oligarchs and dangerous.
 
Some suggest former FSB agents killed Litvinenko as retribution for breaking their code of silence, given that he and several other members of an FSB group assigned to investigate political corruption went public and identified members of the agency and government officials, including Putin, as corrupt.
 
There are some who even suggest Litvinenko died as a result of being careless with the Po210, that in fact he was handling the radioactive material as part of a smuggling or even possible terrorist plot to assist Chechnya or other Muslim groups, seeing as he converted to Islam before his death. Why would there be a Muslim connection? Because Litvinenko asserted that Putin masterminded a series of terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere but then framed Chechnya, even going so far as starting a war with that tiny region in order to gain political power. Clearly it worked and Putin rode the anti-terrorism bandwagon right up to the Kremlin, and has been running Russia ever since. But Litvinenko would have known how to handle Po210; for all the praise or criticism aimed at him, incompetent he was not. And just where would he have picked up the deadly toxicant? Certainly not at Killers R Us or Target.
 
Nearly every possible scenario has one common thread – Vladimir Putin. And, on the surface, each scenario has a scintilla of plausibility until one faces a few realities. 
 
First – Po 210 is not an off-the-shelf poison. The village idiot can concoct a Drano® cocktail. A decent microbiologist can come up with a usable biological agent. But polonium is seven or eight figures expensive – few have a multimillion or $10, $20, $30 million motive to kill someone, let alone the means to back it up. This leaves two likely scenarios – a state-sponsored hit, either with or without Putin’s explicit blessing, or a very wealthy oligarch – Berezovsky – as capable of using such a costly weapon. 
 
Second, polonium also requires a fairly sophisticated production capability. Russia produces much of the world’s supply. As an aside, the U.S. buys a large proportion of Russia’s polonium to keep it off the black market. What a world! Russia has legitimized the shakedown and taken it to an art form. This toxicant was selected for a reason. It had “made in Russia” all over it – and was if you will excuse the mixed geographic metaphor, a Sicilian Message sung to Rimsky Korsakov. Some go so far as to suggest the perpetrators didn’t think the Brits could diagnose it in time; and that in fact it was a stealth poison designed to inflict maximum pain. They were almost right. The definitive diagnosis came all too shortly before Litvinenko died.
 
Some argue it was such an exotic poison so as to recreate the fear and awe reminiscent of the Cold War KGB. Others argue it was Russia saying this isn’t the only radioactive threat the West needs to worry about and we’re not squeamish when it comes to advancing our cause. 
 
Then there is the journey that the radioactive material took – requiring planning, funding and expertise from point of procurement to the actual assassination. This level of sophistication suggests government sanctioned action. 
 
At the end of the day, does it really matter who killed Litvinenko or why? Is it not enough to recognize his murder for what it is – a calculated and concerted effort to silence someone who had a voice, enough credibility to garner some serious journalist, business and political friends, and a message that clearly was an “inconvenient truth” as far as the very fabric of 21st century Russia is concerned? The dynamic interplay between corrupt government, business and political leaders; the use of deadly and violent tactics against ordinary citizens – from bombings to murder – in order to silence opposition; and the reemergence of a new Soviet-style nation that is willing to invade peaceful nations; claiming ownership of valuable global resources whether it is equitable or not such as the Arctic; placing cyber threats at the doorstep of most Western nations and spies within those countries and forging alliances with nations that by definition want to disrupt Western Civilization – all of this at the hands of Vladimir Putin.
There’s a lesson to be learned from Litvinenko, even as his message emerges from the grave.
 
“You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed. You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilized value. You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilized men and women. 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. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.” – Alexander Litvinenko
 
The above was Litvinenko’s deathbed statement given on November 21, 2006, just two days before he succumbed to the effects of the deadly poison – Polonium 210 that caused multisystem organ failure, destruction of the inner lining of his gut and a progressive, painful ordeal before death. The high profile assassination of former Russian security officer, British citizen, and dissident author Alexander Litvinenko on November 23, 2006 captured the world’s attention and, for a moment, raised serious questions about Vladimir Putin, Russia and the Kremlin.  
 
Was Vladimir Putin the architect of a most masterful and vile strategy to ascend to power – using Russian agents to bomb Moscow apartment buildings, rocking the country to its core with fear of widespread terrorism, framing Chechnya for it, and ultimately emerging as the one who brought peace to the land, as author Scott Anderson wrote in the article “None dare call it conspiracy” that appeared in the September issue of GQ? If true, it was a brilliant plan. Does anyone doubt Putin is capable of it? If so, may I remind you of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008? Or freezing part of Europe using winter as leverage for his petrodollars and power? Perhaps his influence in Iran and Syria? I’m sure it is accidental both nations just happen to have nuclear aspirations and biological weapons programs. And the materials wouldn’t have “made in Russia” stamped on them would they? 
 
Putin’s Russia reaches beyond the Eurasian footprint of his nation. Reporters from Moscow to Maryland have died since 2006. Anyone who has gotten too close to the Litvinenko case has been killed, and most cases remain unsolved. So influential is the Kremlin by fear as well as finance, that GQ all but used invisible ink to promote the article; that is to say they did everything but bury it beneath the covers. 
 
What is so problematic is that the West fails to recognize the growing influence Moscow is exerting worldwide, as Putin deftly leads his nation towards global preeminence. The West fails to appreciate the threat Russia and its proxy Iran pose to stability in the Middle East, as well as parts of Europe and the Americas. We’ll set aside for another time a discussion about our vulnerabilities in the Western Hemisphere from the terrorist training camps and other collaborations between Russia, Venezuela and Iran in South America and points north. Let it suffice that Moscow’s tentacles or puppet strings have a far reach which is growing by the day. Britain was not immune, nor did it provide safe haven for a vocal Putin critic. There’s a lesson to be learned from Litvinenko’s death.
 
Saga 2 – A Nuclear Iran
 
Over the last several weeks a variety of ‘revelations’ have emerged from Iran, the UN and the US. 
 
First, either Iran or the CIA disclosed there’s another secret uranium enrichment plant. Of course the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) tepidly denounces Iran for not being honest about their capabilities. Shocking! Twenty years of secret programs, misrepresenting their nuclear assets and we still are surprised by anything Iran does? The world, especially the IAEA and increasingly this Administration are much like Charlie Brown playing football with Lucy. The good guys, like Charlie Brown, never quite get it that Lucy will remove the football right before he tries to kick it, resulting in a gigantic thud as he lands hard on his keester. Ahmadinejad is Lucy toying with the Charlie Brown West. So in true form, the IAEA – an underfunded, poorly led and underpowered watch dog agency that is more political than practical – subsequently praise the Tehran regime for being forthright and ready to become part of the world community – let’s all sing Kumbaya! 
 
Next, seemingly weekly, Ahmadinejad or one of his cronies either chastises the West or sort of promises to play nice then reneges on the agreements – yada, yada, yada. No news yet news.
 
Third, Iran is credited with an advanced detonation device – their research program to take nuclear material and weaponize it – is nearing completion if not already there. Where you weigh in on that answer – are they “there” or not….is largely determined by your level of astuteness, willing suspension of disbelief, your political persuasion and how much you avoid praying at the altar of galactic stupidity. 
 
Consider the recent report that Iran has made great progress in implosion technology – the ability to harness the force of high explosives to initiate the chain reaction necessary for nuclear detonation. To make a nuclear weapon you need the following ingredients: nuclear materials, really nifty and powerful high explosives, metallurgy expertise to create the housing, the recipe to put all the ingredients together, the money to buy or develop all the components and someone willing to sell what you need. Sounds like Iran and Russia. Let’s name the elephant in the room….Iran has the nuke – some assembly required. 
 
Then there is their missile system. With an effective implosion device, you can limit the size of the warhead payload – the lighter the load, the further the ride on a missile. And the Iranian missile program is advanced and growing. It is a budgetary major priority, and advancing by the month. 
 
Iran’s nuclear weapons capability and the source of their fast track over a steep learning curve are the elephants in the room; stakeholders talk around it but not necessarily about it. Why not? Each nation has a vested interest in pulling up short of acknowledging what most preparedness experts know on a gut level – yet another (undesirable) nation gets the secret handshake to join the nuclear club. But in acknowledging the obvious, it is tantamount to admitting that the sanctions, the diplomacy and the “hand of friendship” have been abysmal failures. All such efforts may have made the world feel better – a false sense of security. But these efforts have played right into Ahmadinejad’s hand as a delaying tactic, giving Iran more time to progress, while the West foolishly believed it was gaining time to assemble a coalition that somehow could talk Iran off the ledge, or until a cogent, palatable solution were to magically appear in lieu of the bitter truth and difficult solution that must be visited upon the government in Tehran. In reality an objective assessment of the strategies applied over the last several years towards this rogue nation with its growing nuclear weapons appetite would result in a failing grade. Only diplomats would fail to see the obvious: “We have Iran right where it wants us!” Let’s be clear – Iran is a nuclear weapons nation even if their nukes carry the label “some assembly required.” 
 
Iran has the capability to produce a nuke. Iran has all but said it. By not actually having it, (although for goodness sake, they have left enough clues suggesting they have it) Iran can dangle the thin thread of hope that the West is holding onto that somehow, some way the progress it has made can be undone, or reversed. This gives Iran a major bargaining chip and enormous leverage. The West must accept Iran is for all intents and purposes a nuclear nation without having tested an explosive device, and move on to the next level of containment – preventing the assembly of their weapons, and limiting the ability to expand the program from one or two nukes to several or many. Iran cannot be allowed to be a nuclear presence in the Middle East. Quite frankly, the time is coming when Iran cannot be allowed to be an agent provocateur in the Middle East. Easier said than done! But sometimes unpalatable medicine is necessary to cure the disease. 
 
And who has been the patron of Iran’s nuclear aspirations? Russia. Ignoring the obvious only supports why it is so ludicrous for the United Nations, the United States, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the West to continue with the current strategies being employed to try and contain Iran and its nuclear program. 
 
The Lunacy of Sanctions and Other Goofy Notions
 
Docking a nation’s allowance is only effective when that country is unimportant, without industry or valuable commodities, and thus has few friends. But a resource rich nation that has big friends with flash cash cannot be isolated. You can learn a lot about foreign policy by ordinary life events. Once upon a time, hard to believe, I broke curfew – as punishment and as a deterrent towards future misadventures, my mom docked my allowance. Never pleasant! Soon thereafter, my dad slipped me a $20. So much for the strategy of sanctions! On the world stage, the West may try to dock Iran’s allowance, but as long as Tehran has other powerful allies that are willing to “slip Iran a $20” – like Russia, China, North Korea and others, the strategy will continue to fail.  
 
Just as an aside: if sanctions were so effective, then how can Iran afford two highly costly programs, missiles and nuclear power? Or, going for the hat trick, how can that nation afford to supply weapons, men and know-how to Hezbollah and others? And tell me again why they need nuclear power when they have natural gas? And why are they building a variety of reactors – one of which could never supply their energy needs but can breed plutonium? 
 
The West is a bit late. Locking the front door, while leaving the back one open, is a set-up for failure. Duh! 
 
The further folly of Russia somehow holding Iran’s nuclear fuel until such time as the West trusts Tehran begs incredulity. Russia has been supplying nuclear fuel to Iran and the technology to build reactors, enrichment facilities and most likely the components or know how to develop weapons. One of the missile systems protecting Iran’s nuclear facilities is Russian. If Iran was truly serious about non threatening nuclear power, they could purchase Hyperion Power Generation’s mini nuclear fission reactor that will provide electricity and hot water to remote locations using a technology that would be unlikely converted/diverted to weapons applications. So far there is a wait list, but with a missive from Obama, I’d bet a few would be freed up! We all know the answer – Iran wants nukes to show it is the most powerful or at least dangerous Islamic nation on the planet. It is “all in” in terms of national resources towards weapons, missiles and nukes. And unless we pay attention to the supply routes of their conventional weapons – procurement, sales and distribution, we will be caught woefully by surprise when materials far more dangerous than Qassam rockets or RPGs are sent to Gaza, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
 
Perhaps we should just let Israel be Israel. But that window of opportunity will close the moment Russia and/or China provide the newest ring of advanced missile defense technologies around Iran’s nuclear facilities. 
 
Most Middle Eastern leaders are nervous about Iran even without nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad foments unrest and instability in the region. It is bad for business, and bad for the people who want to live in the 21st century with dignity and provide a better life for their kids. Terrorism á la Iran is bad for peace. Iran not only is a threat to Israel but to moderate Islamic nations like Jordan and Egypt. Iran does not want a stable region – it cannot survive with strong neighbors. It must create conflict to be a vital and vaunted nation state to its allies. And with unrest comes influence. If parts of Lebanon are mere territories of Syria, the rest belong to Iran. During my last visit to Israel a few months ago, as I stood across the fence on the Southern Lebanon border, I saw it was the flag of Hezbollah that flew, not the Lebanese flag. And who sponsors Hezbollah? If you have to ask….
 
But Iran could not exert its influence without an influential patron.
 
Russia has a vested interest in a relationship with Iran, going well beyond the obvious that Iran is an enormous thorn in the side of the U.S., the destabilizing effect Iran has on the Middle East is distracting us from facing the growing global tug of war for international preeminence between Moscow and Washington (guess who is winning?). They are energy partners via gas and pipelines. They are weapons partners – Iran is not selling Hamas and Hezbollah slingshots – they are Russian-made rifles, antitank missiles. Iran and Russia are forging alliances in the Middle East – both exert influence in Lebanon and Syria. And then there is the nuclear connection – Russia is a leading exporter of fuel (petroleum and radioactive) – from the stuff of energy producing reactors to poisons such as Polonium. Iran and Russia are business partners, military allies and two nations with a colossal inferiority complex bound and determined to show the West they are not to be trifled with. So tell me again why the major nations’ diplomats think considering more sanctions will work? Or that Russia is a friend to the West? Trojan horse is more like it. NATO beware. 
 
Of course there is a possible bright side, and the flicker of hope that the threat of Iran may in fact move the moderate Arab nations closer to Israel and the United States given that all but the extremist nations have a vested interest in curbing the provocative nature Ahmadinejad and his revolutionaries pose to countries trying to emerge into the 21st century. Several sources in the Middle East have confirmed an evolving growth, albeit sub rosa, in collaborations. One well-placed source went so far as to suggest they are increasingly relying upon Israel and offering in kind intelligence and support. But for sub rosa to become widely recognized collaborations, the United States and rest of the West need to step up, provide support and most importantly face the fact Russia is not our friend. We may have to forge ad hoc partnerships but that should not force us to let our guard down in the process. It’s time we start exploiting Russia’s weaknesses and let Putin know two can play this game. For the moment he seems to be the only one using tactics and strategies aimed at undermining U.S. influence – economically, politically and militarily. And he is doing it very, very well. 
 
Conclusion
 
On the third anniversary of Litvinenko’s murder – whether martyr, mere mortal, murder victim or insightful messenger – his death reminds us anything Russian is never what it appears and is always exactly as it appears. That is to say, all warfare is based upon deception (Sun Tzu). After three years many unanswered questions remain. The most controversial: who killed him and why? Litvinenko was a casualty of war, but which war? An internal one fought for the right to rule Russia or some other one is less important than remembering why he was killed, because he shed light on an issue some very powerful people did not want illuminated. And at the center of it all – once again – is Vladimir Putin. 
 
There is a global chess game being played: Russia versus the United States. The stakes are high. The world is at risk – the U.S. as sole superpower has had the privilege, responsibility and sometimes unenviable position of being Dudley Do-Right, Global cop, honest broker and refuge for the abused and abandoned. It is not a role to be taken lightly nor apologized for. Vladimir Putin understands the job of being the leader – de facto or de jure. He understands what is up for grabs and is unabashed at going for it, leading Russia towards a reemergence of power. The president of Coca Cola does not apologize to Pepsi. We, the U.S. – as a people, our POTUS and our leaders – must have the same pride and resolve. 
 
Russia – whether Russia Inc. or Soviet Union Part II – cannot be taken lightly. It is not your same old bumbling empire led by oafish shoe – bangers. It has used savvy, brutality, money, weapons and even diplomacy, certainly publicity, to create a portfolio of allies and network of entities that can undermine the West, especially the U.S. Iran is a primer on Russian tactics in the 21st century. But we should not think Ahmadinejad is so naïve as to allow his nation's sovereignty to be so easily purchased. Moscow–Tehran is a symbiotic relationship. We cannot ignore that reality. 
 
The Russia – Iran nuclear partnership is real. The threat of Iran as nuclear nation is real. How much longer are we going to ignore the obvious? A nuclear Iran is a threat to the world. We are beyond talking them out of their enrichment plants, their missile programs, their plutonium and uranium stockpiles and their antipathy towards the West. Sanctions don’t work. Even if we were to confiscate their biggest piggy banks, the smaller ones can still do the trick. This is not an economic, political or diplomatic problem – it is a weapon in the hands of a dangerous nation problem. The options are all fraught with risk. The world, especially the U.S., Israel and moderates within Iranian missile range, have to answer the hard question: is the risk involved in denying Iran a successful nuclear arsenal worse than the risk of allowing them to have one? Very shortly that will be a moot question. Then what?
 
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Dr. Robin McFee is a physician and medical toxicologist. An expert in WMD preparedness, she is a consultant to government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director and cofounder of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and was bioweapons-science advisor to the Regional Domestic Security Task Force Region 7 after 9/11, as well as advisor on avian and swine flu preparedness to numerous agencies and organizations. Dr. McFee is a member of the Global Terrorism, Political Instability and International Crime Council of ASIS International. She has authored numerous articles on terrorism, health care and preparedness, and c-oauthored two books: Toxico-terrorism by McGraw-Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press.
 

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