? By Finian Cunningham
Over the past decade or so, a disturbing number of Russian nationals living in Britain have met untimely deaths. The victims – at least 14 – have been high-profile individuals, such as oligarch businessman Boris Berezovsky or former Kremlin security agent Alexander Litvinenko. All were living in Britain as exiles, and all were viewed as opponents of President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Invariably, British politicians and news media refer to the deaths of Russian émigrés as “proof” of Russian state “malign activity”. Putin in particular is accused of ordering “the hits” as some kind of vendetta against critics and traitors.
The claims of Russian state skulduggery have been reported over and over without question in the British media as well as US media. It has become an article-of-faith espoused by British and American politicians alike. “Putin is a killer,” they say with seeming certainty. There is simply no question about it in their assertions.
The claims have also been given a quasi-legal veracity, with a British government-appointed inquiry in the case of Alexander Litvinenko making a conclusion that his death in 2006 was “highly likely” the result of a Kremlin plot to assassinate. Putin was personally implicated in the death of Litvinenko by the official British inquiry. The victim was said to have been poisoned with radioactive polonium. Deathbed images of a bald-headed Litvinenko conjure up a haunting image of alleged Kremlin evil-doing.
Once the notion of Russian evil-doing is inculcated the public mind, then subsequent events can be easily invoked as “more proof” of what has already been “established”. Namely, so it goes, that the Russian state is carrying out assassinations on British territory.
Thus, we see this “corroborating” effect with the alleged poisoning of a former Russian double-agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury back in March this year.
What actually happened to the Skripals is not known – who are said to have since recovered their health, but their whereabouts have not been disclosed by the British authorities. Nevertheless, as soon as the incident of their apparent poisoning occurred, it was easy for the British authorities and media to whip up accusations against Russia as being behind “another assassination attempt” owing to the past “established template” of other Russian émigrés seeming to have been killed by Kremlin agents.
For its part, the Russian government has always categorically denied any involvement in the ill-fate of nationals living in exile in Britain. On the Skripal case, Moscow has pointed out that the British authorities have not produced any independently verifiable evidence against the Kremlin. Russian requests for access to the investigation file have been rejected by the British.
On the Litvinenko case, Russia has said that the official British inquiry was conducted without due process of transparency, or Russia being allowed to defend itself. It was more trial by media.
A common denominator is that the British have operated on a presumption of guilt. The “proof” is largely at the level of allegation or innuendo of Russian malfeasance.
But let’s turn the premise of the argument around. What if the British state were the ones conducting a campaign of assassination against Russian émigrés, with the cold-blooded objective of using those deaths as a propaganda campaign to blacken and criminalize Russia?
In a recent British media interview Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was typically harangued over alleged Russian malign activity in Britain. Lavrov rightly turned the question around, and said that the Russian authorities are the ones who are entitled to demand an explanation from the British state on why so many of its nationals have met untimely deaths.
The presumption of guilt against Russia is based on a premise of Russophobia, which prevents an open-minded inquiry. If an open mind is permitted, then surely a more pertinent position is to ask the British authorities to explain the high number of deaths in their jurisdiction.
As ever, the litmus-test question is: who gains from the deaths? In the case of the alleged attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, would Russia risk such a bizarre plot against an exile who had been living in Britain undisturbed for 10 years? Or would Britain gain much more from smearing Moscow at the time of President Putin’s re-election in March, and in the run-up to the World Cup?
The more recent alleged nerve-agent poisoning of two British citizens – Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess – in the southern English town of Amesbury revived official anti-Russia accusations and public fears over the earlier Skripal incident in nearby Salisbury.
The Amesbury incident in early July occurred just as a successful World Cup tournament in Russia was underway. It also came ahead of US President Donald Trump’s landmark summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
Again, who stands to gain most from these provocative events? Russia or Britain?
Another revealing twist in the presumed narrative of “Kremlin criminality” came from a recent interview given to Russian news media by the daughter of the deceased oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Of course, her side of the story received no coverage in the British media.
Liza Berezovsky believes that her father’s death in 2013, while living in exile in Britain, was the dirty work of British state assassins. The case has added importance because it links directly to the previous death of Alexander Litvinenko, who was also living as an exile in Britain.
Berezovsky’s daughter believes that her father wanted to return from Britain to Russia so that he could live out his old age in his native country. She claims that the oligarch had vital information on how the death of Litvinenko in 2006, reportedly from radioactive polonium poisoning, had actually been staged as a smear against Putin and the Kremlin.
Boris Berezovsky, his daughter claims, played a key role along with the British state in orchestrating the demise of Litvinenko to look like an assassination plot carried out by the Kremlin. It was Berezovsky who apparently suggested that Litvinenko, with whom he was an associate, shave off his hair in order to drum up the suspicion of Kremlin poisoning.
Liza Berezovsky contends that, seven years after Litvinenko died, her father was preparing to divulge the dirty tricks involving the British state and their anti-Russian campaign. She said the oligarch wanted to atone for his past misdeeds and to make his peace with Mother Russia. She believes that British state agents got wind of his plans to come clean, which would have caused them an acute international scandal.
In March 2013, just days before he was due to depart from Britain, the oligarch was found dead in his mansion near Ascot, in the English countryside, apparently from suicide caused by a ligature around his neck.
In the end, however, a British civil coroner did not conclude suicide, and left an “open verdict” on the death. An eminent German pathologist hired by Liza Berezovsky provided post-mortem evidence that her father’s body showed signs of his death having not been self-inflicted. He was, in their view, murdered.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that British secret services are running an assassination program on Russian exiles. These exiles are often used for a time by the British state as media assets, presented as high-profile critics of the Kremlin and lending testimonies to much-publicized allegations of “authoritarianism” and “human rights abuses” under Putin.
At some opportune later time, these Russian dissidents can be liquidated by British agents. Their deaths are then presented as “more proof” of Russian malign activity and in particular for the purpose of criminalizing President Putin and his government.
Considering how London has become an international haven for Russian oligarchs whose wealth is often tainted as being proceeds from criminal activity against Russian laws and who therefore are easily framed as Putin opponents – the British state has ample opportunities for setting up “assassinations” and anti-Putin provocations.
Such a nefarious British program is by no means unprecedented. During the 30-year armed conflict in Northern Ireland ending in the late 1990s, it is documented that the British state ran clandestine assassination campaigns against Irish republican figures, as well as ordinary citizens, as a coldly calculated political instrument of state-sponsored terrorism. It was an instrument honed by the British from other colonial-era conflicts, such as in Kenya, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Malaysia (formerly Malaya), and in several Arab countries like Bahrain and Yemen, as detailed by British historian Mark Curtis in his book Web of Deceit.
Adapting such heinous techniques for a contemporary propaganda war against Russia wouldn’t cost any qualms to British state grandees and their agents. Indeed, for them, it would be simply Machiavellian business-as-usual.