It goes against the grain, but sometimes – rarely – I feel Putin and the Russian security apparatus deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt. On 6 October, the interesting but often-sensationalist Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta ran an article ‘Registered Speciality – the Killer’ which claimed that the Russian spetsluzhby, the security agencies, now routinely murder enemies of the Kremlin. The author, Novaya gazeta’s military affairs editor Vyacheslav Izmailov, pulls together a varied collection of killings and kidnappings and asserts that the same sinister hand is behind them all.
I get the same unease reading this kind of article as I did with Alexander Litvinenko and Yuri Felshtinsky’s Blowing Up Russia (London: Gibson Square, 2007). I have considerable sympathy for the notion that a cynical and ruthless professional culture reigns in both the Kremlin and the headquarters of the various security and intelligence agencies. There are hard-hearted and –headed men who do not have a problem with murder as a tool of policy, as evidenced by the assassination at the hands of GRU agents of Chechen president-in-exile Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar in 2004. I also find it hard to believe that at some level or another there wasn’t a Kremlin connection to Litvinenko’s horrifically theatrical murder in London, although I’d not go so far as to postulate that there was a specific order put our for his death.
Beyond that, though, I begin to be concerned at the willingness some Kremlin critics have to see a vast, malign and above all purposeful conspiracy at work. Consider, for example, the deaths of so many active and former Chechen militants, including Magomed Kariyev (Baku, 2001), Vakha Ibragimov (Baku, 2003), Katar Dozhebyl (Moscow, 2004), Movladi Baysarov (Moscow, 2006), and most recently Ruslan Yamadayev (Moscow, 2008). I am sure none were mourned in the Kremlin, but that is not the same as seeing them as the victims of hit squads. Baysarov, for example, was a deeply unpleasant man implicated in a string of kidnaps and murders and by most accounts died hefting a grenade when armed police tried to arrest him. Izmailov at the time claimed that he was gunned down while not resisting because the FSB did not want him spilling the beans on the dirty work he did when he commanded one of their special operations units in Chechnya. Maybe, but if you want quietly to silence someone, a firefight in a busy Moscow street might not be the way to go. Likewise, Kariyev’s murder has been ascribed by many to Russian agents given his role as a former Chechen field commander, but Azeri police I spoke to suggest that he had become a target in feuds between local criminal gangs. This would certainly tally with later killings, such as the murder of Chechens Imran Gaziyev and Ragub Rustamov in Baku in November 2007. Both had had links with armed groups in Chechnya, but both were much more deeply and dangerously involved in the local underworld, and it is this rather than any political motive which almost certainly led to their deaths. As for Yamadayev, the person who seems to have benefited most by his death is Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov (whose fingerprints some also see on Politkovskaya’s corpse), a man whose interests are distinctly and increasingly at odds with the Kremlin’s.
The trouble is by surrounding himself with siloviki – ‘men of force’, veterans of the military and security agencies, men whose expertise, instincts and prejudices mirrored rather than challenged his own – Putin created a zero-sum culture of nationalism and paranoia within the Kremlin. Its philosophy is best characterized by Lenin’s dictum kto kogo? Who beats whom? Coupled with growing self-confidence thanks to eight years of steady economic progress, healthy profits from gas and oil exports, high domestic approval ratings and the sight of US forces embroiled in painful and unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as its economy spirals into crisis, this perspective has driven an increasingly assertive foreign and security policy that Medvedev has done nothing to resist. First Ukraine, then Belarus had their energy supplies turned off by the Russians, as Moscow sought to use its gas and oil as weapons. Over Washington’s objections, the Russians continued to sell Iran both nuclear technology and surface-to-air missiles. After fifteen years of decline, under Putin the intelligence agencies regained much of their old strength and aggression. Independent-minded journalists and non-governmental organisations found themselves under pressure, accused of being spies and saboteurs in the pay of foreign powers or cheerleaders for criminals and terrorists. Even inward investment is being regarded with growing suspicion: then-FSB director and now Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev warned that foreign companies were trying to take over enterprises of “strategic importance for Russia’s defence and security” to plunder national secrets, and multinationals such as Shell and BP are being forced out of their positions within the country’s energy sector. Then the war in Georgia provided a telling snapshot of this new imperialism in action.
Of course, all this is a long way short of a campaign of foreign and domestic assassination, but it helps explain the widespread willingness to see a smoking gun in Putin’s and now Medvedev’s hands. After all, the Kremlin itself signaled a growing willingness openly to carry out such operations. In June 2006, the Russian legislature passed a law permitting the president to authorize the security agencies to assassinate terrorists – a term framed loosely enough to apply to near enough any enemies of the state – abroad. Ironically, he needs to get the approval of the upper chamber of the legislature in order to deploy military forces, but he can unleash the security services – including the FSB, GRU and SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service – at will and without scrutiny or review.
Whether or not they have requisite laws on their statute books, states kill when they feel they must. It is, in the final analysis, what states do. But however high the pile of gravestones one can assemble, from militants to journalists, they will still be overshadowed by those of the victims of contract killing relating to criminal and commercial rivalries. At a 2004 conference on crime in Moscow, deputy secretary of the Security Council Valentin Stepankov asserted that there had been 5,000 contract killings in 2003 alone, and that this was a pretty unremarkable year. Most would have gone unsolved and unpunished, but also unmourned by many, as there was and is a widespread assumption that the majority of the victims were involved in some sort of criminal activity themselves. Some three-quarters of all assassinations are made on underworld figures or businesspeople whom the police believed already had some kind of relationship with criminals.
After all, while in the 1990s contract killings were often showy and indiscriminate affairs, with car bombs exploding in city streets and restaurants raked by automatic gunfire, now murder is more discriminating, visited generally just on the target and maybe his driver and bodyguards. Yet it is still common. To zakazat or ‘order’ someone – the usual term to arrange a contract killing – is still relatively cheap in Russia. To engage a low-level thug to murder an equally low-level target can cost as little as $100-200, although contract killing where the victim is well-known and/or well-protected can cost much, much more.
My point is that while those such as Izmailov may see a state of affairs in which murder has become ‘an ordinary practice of the special services’ I suspect the truth is at once less clear-cut and perhaps even sadder. Russia remains a country in which violence, intimidation and even murder have – like bribery – become all-too-widely accepted as ‘an ordinary practice’ of politics, business and crime. It has been easy (and hardly unfair) to caricature Putin as homo sovieticus in a sharper suit, presiding over a restored Soviet Union shorn of its antiquated Marxist rhetoric but again happy to use murder as a tool of statecraft. But perhaps his most corrosive legacy is instead that so many are willing and able to use murder as a tool of self-interest: that, to adapt Clausewitz’s dictum, ‘contract killing is a continuation of business by other means.’