The Litvinenko Inquiry – Enemy at the gates

Days 9 to 17 – up to February 27th

On Day 15 of the Inquiry, Evgheniy Limarev, a former member of the SVR (Russia’s overseas intelligence agency, formed on the demise of the KGB), was providing evidence. Mr Emmerson, counsel for the Litvinenko family, asked “so, basically, the high-ranking members of the SVR  that you dealt with were mafia organised criminals, correct?”. “For me, yes”, he replied.

It was an illuminating exchange, bringing to a close the recent passage of the inquiry examining the security industry in Russia and the workings of the so-called Sistema (also known as the Siloviki), Putin’s inner coterie of advisers and power brokers that wield opaque and unaccountable influence in modern Russia. The inquiry has heard that in 2003 Russia adopted a policy authorising the “elimination outside of the Russian Federation” of opponents to the state (see here). A number of witnesses gave evidence purporting to shed light on these operations. The murder of Boris Nemtsov, virtually at the gates of the Kremlin on February 27th, is seen by many to be a continuation of this Russian state policy towards opponents; the same policy that led to Litvinenko’s poisoning.

The more I hear from the inquiry, the more I am convinced that Putin (if he cares at all for the outcome) will be secretly pleased if Litvinenko’s killing is deemed to be state-sponsored, for two reasons. First, as I said in the first Litvinenko Inquiry post, a finding of Russian state culpability will heap pressure on the British government to take diplomatic action. Second, a conclusion from a judicial system independent of, and arguably hostile to, Russia, will reinforce the idea that it is not mere hyperbole that enemies of the Russian state who are too vocal in their opposition may be targeted.  If the Duma or a Russian judge had made such a statement some would have detected the whiff of scare-mongering.  Coming from a British High Court Judge in a Western inquiry, the conclusion would be far more believable.

But as a friend with regular business dealings in Russia told me recently, “Putin doesn’t give a shit about the Litvinenko Inquiry”. Of far more concern to him, and generating many more column inches in Russia right now, is any ramping up of sanctions over Ukraine and the possibility of Russia being ejected from the international payments system known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT. Some in Russia say being forced out of this governmental Paypal-type mechanism would be an act of war. The European Central Bank, albeit in less dramatic language, makes a similar point.

Putin views the West as having a finger on the SWIFT trigger and could take the current narrative on defence spending as implying that European members of NATO really aren’t serious about collective defence (as American General Ray Odierno’s comments regarding Britain imply). Does that make Ukraine any more stable? Or the Baltic states (NATO members with large Russian minorities that may need ‘protecting’) more secure? Putin sees Russia locked in a new Cold War with the West encroaching on her borders, and actions in the Ukraine, Nemtsov’s murder in Moscow last Friday and Litvinenko’s killing all part of Russia’s response to this contest. At a time of heightened international tension, Putin may well be looking at the Chairman of the Litvinenko Inquiry as an ally, not an adversary.

Kicking the ring

When I was at Sandhurst, the British Army’s officer training establishment, Wednesday afternoons were given over to ‘Academy Sport’. This was an opportunity for us bright, young hopefuls to pursue whichever physical activity was our personal favourite.  Almost every sport imaginable was on offer, providing myriad opportunities to get sweaty.  Also available was golf.  Not being a fan of the game, but being a stalwart supporter of a pub in Ascot next to a driving range, I signed up, along with two mates with similar motivations. We were accused by our Company Second-in-Command of “kicking the ring” out of the principle of Academy Sports afternoons.  But, as we were entirely within the rules, he didn’t have a leg to stand on, like many of our more dedicated compatriots come Wednesday evenings.

I was reminded of this exchange when I heard of the so-called cash-for-access allegations involving Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, both former British Foreign Secretaries (Conservative and Labour respectively) and Sir Malcolm also the current chair of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Both men had been caught in a joint Channel 4/Daily Telegraph sting whereby they were filmed discussing employment opportunities as advisers to a fictitious Chinese firm seeking to invest in Britain.

The criticism broadly revolved around three issues: the daily fee each man charged for external work (£5000 in the case of Mr Straw), whether sitting MPs should take additional paid employment, and whether current or former public servants should benefit financially through the experiences, access and ideas they have accumulated through positions which are denied to the general public. The first criticism is the politics of envy (my daily rate is not yet £5000 but I’d like it to be). The second is hotly debated but, supposedly, answered by British MPs having to declare additional remuneration on the Register of MPs Financial Interests (see link here). The third is more interesting and, for me, personal, as it is exactly what I have sought to do, and is the reason you are reading this blog.

In my 23-year military career I achieved a reasonable rank and held a number of interesting roles.  Since moving into journalism with The Economist and as a freelance I have leant on that experience to offer angles that may not be readily available elsewhere in the media. However, I have held back from discussing any sensitive material to which I have been exposed and avoided any conflicts of interest. But is maximising one’s marketability for financial gain, however that experience has been accumulated, fair game? Or is it ‘kicking the ring’?

Sir Malcolm has today resigned as Chairman of the ISC and will not contest his seat at the next election (see here); Jack Straw was stepping down anyway. As well as the legendary (to my Company anyway) quote of “kicking the ring”, my former Company Second-in-Command, who is today a serving General, also offered us the following bon mot: “when contemplating whether or not to do something, if the thought ever occurs to you that it might not be a wise thing to do, it probably isn’t”. I have held both quotes close over the years and employed them equally in various circumstances.  Sir Malcolm and Jack Straw perhaps kicked a bit too hard this time.

Words as weapons

Actress Shirley MacLaine has caused outrage with comments in her memoir suggesting holocaust victims were “balancing their karma from ages before” (see here). The book includes in the sub-title ‘A lifetime of questions, speculations…’ and so on, leaving a lot of caveated wriggle-room.  So this might be nothing more than a ham-fisted example of the old adage about ‘no such thing as bad publicity’. But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the current debate about freedom of speech, her book highlights the power of words to wound.

This is nothing new, of course. British Prime Minister David Cameron chooses words deliberately when he talks of a “war on mediocrity” in schools. Likewise his opposite number, Ed Miliband, countering with a desire to “weaponise” the issue of the National Health Service. Intriguingly, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has just released a classified document from 1985. It contains advice to the then new Minister, Tom King, on toxic words to steer clear of (see here). Words like ‘British Army’, ‘orange’, ‘green’ and ‘Ireland’ may seem innocuous enough to many observers, but were felt, at the time, to be sufficiently loaded as to be worth avoiding. (When I served in Northern Ireland I remember a local councillor’s outrage at a new cycle path along a busy road. His concern was not for the safety of the cyclists. Rather at the numerous junctions on the route there were patches of tarmac where the green cycle path, white give way symbols and yellow (gold) lines intersected.  These, he fumed, were Republican symbols being foisted on the public without consultation.)

But where to draw the line between censorship and free speech if words can be so powerful? “How do you take on ideas if you hide them from view?” asked Tom Slater assistant editor of the online magazine Spiked and vocal opponent of all forms of censorship on a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, The World Tonight (link here – start at 16:37). “Censorship is a judgment on the audience,” he says, by allowing aberrant views to go unchallenged. Some authorities have resorted to legislation. An OSCE report into free media (see here) was sharply critical of Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb portion of Bosnia, for too heavy-handedly encouraging self-censorship.

Gene Sharp, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, understands the power of words better than most. The ‘Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare,’ as he has been called, founded the Albert Einstein Institution and promotes nonviolent struggle to challenge dictatorship and oppression. His amazing film, How to start a revolution, (see trailer here) suggests one of the most powerful methods is the use of signs in English.  The point being that the audience the protesters should be appealing to is global, not local, and English is better understood world-wide than any other language.

Some in the media have started referring to Islamic State, or IS, as Daesh, knowing well the power words and language hold. France, also, now uses this term in official language (see here). Justin Marozzi, historian and author of ‘Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood’ has clear advice. “Follow the Arabs,” he says, “they don’t use the term IS for a very good reason.” The term Islamic State came from the group itself and he suggests we unwittingly confer legitimacy on them by supporting their narrative. Alternatively, Daesh, with connotations of being ‘outsiders’ or ‘renegades’ has a “strongly pejorative meaning of crushing something underfoot, of trampling on people, of being bigoted,” he says.

Words can hurt; governments know that, terrorists and individuals too.  When does free speech become incitement; when should self-censorship give way to legislation? And in a global conversation, won’t somebody always be offended?

Goodbye to all that

Scan 24The British government recently announced that a national service of commemoration will take place on March 13th to mark the end of combat operations in Afghanistan (link here). Bookended by the campaigns in Iraq (the latest of which continued to be busy last weekend, see here) the last decade or so of fighting has seen the purpose and efficacy of military action in the realm of international relations transformed.  The result, I think, will be a more unstable world for some decades yet.

There are many lessons that can be drawn from these military deployments. Not least, how the campaigns have highlighted the gulf in understanding between civilian society and the military. This is primarily because, unlike the generation that grew up after the second world war, most of society no longer has experience of military service, either directly or by an immediate family member. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has led to a “reverent but disengaged” attitude toward the military, “absent the caveats or public scepticism we would apply to other…institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money” according to James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine (see here). “If more members of Congress…had had children in uniform,” he says, “the United States would probably not have gone to war in Iraq”.

Two other lessons in particular stand out for me. First, the campaigns demonstrated how little the world community has progressed in terms of international relations since 1945 and has actually retrenched from the end of the Cold War. The shortcomings of collective security and the United Nations (UN) were demonstrated for all the world to see, leading to an ambivalence towards international norms in certain contexts.

Take the UN.  Set up to prevent a third world war, it has been brilliantly successful in that regard.  But a system designed to curb international adventurism by encouraging, through the security-council veto, international inaction, will allow occasional tragedies such as Rwanda, Bosnia or Syria.  This may be the price to pay for international peace, but post-Cold War, is an outdated system.  The UN is still rooted in a state-on-state paradigm and has proved almost powerless to prevent such abuses.  Therefore, when an entity such as al-Qaeda (and, today, Da’ish) appears, it is too easy for the world community to ignore, or rather too hard to do something about collectively (with all the legal and moral cover that provides). Hence the rise of coalitions of the willing, ad-hoc arrangements and interpretation of international law. The role and status of the nation state is centre stage once again.

NATO also has demonstrated a fundamental weakness. It becomes unstuck very quickly outside the model of collective defence, for which the high point was the end of the Cold War.  Despite the description of a community of values, the campaigns have demonstrated through national caveats, how limited NATO’s offensive capability is in wars of choice.  The result, in Afghanistan at least, was a number of small and only related campaigns rather than a coherent whole.  Such wavering may have encouraged Russia’s recent adventurism in Ukraine.

The second lesson to be drawn is that the campaigns showed how ‘war’ as is commonly understood as a contest between two opposing heavy-metal armies, is dead.  Rather, it is now more akin to armed politics. It was very appealing for both campaigns to be seen in a traditional manner, as ‘hard’ military responses are easier to employ (plus, it’s what the military does: ‘when you are a hammer everything looks like a nail’).  The more nuanced application of military effect that has latterly been employed certainly offers a more coherent policy response. But it also raises the spectre of war without end as, unbounded, a blurring of the distinction between peace and war could invite a more regular use of force (as President Obama acknowledged here).

So where are we, as we mark the centenary of the first world war? Nation states interpreting international law to suit their interests and more readily reaching for the military as a policy response. And a political class increasingly detached from the people they ask to do the fighting. Cool heads will be required in the coming years.

The Litvinenko Inquiry – Deeper issues, deeper questions.

Days 5 to 8 – up to February 10th 

“In relation to any given subject, the conversation would develop into something quite far-reaching and quite complex that was really difficult to grasp…it would change from one topic to another, [leading to] deeper issues, deeper questions, deeper answers.” So said a witness to the Inquiry on February 9th when asked of Alexander Litvinenko’s indulgence of conspiracy theories.  The same could be said for the whole inquiry.

Over the last few days the inquiry has dug further into the motivations and characters of the three people at the heart of this inquiry: Alexander Litvinenko and his two alleged killers, Andrei Lugovoy and Dimitri Kovtun.  We have heard how, after the rejection of Mr Litvinenko’s concerns about the activities of the secret unit within the FSB (successor to the KGB) for which he worked, his relationship with Vladimir Putin, his new boss, soured. Mr Litvinenko, through his work as an investigator of organised crime, already believed Putin to be in league with a St Petersburg crime gang. Having lost the confidence of his boss and many colleagues through his questioning of orders and doubting the legality of his unit’s activities, he was subsequently shepherded out of the FSB. His picture was even used for target practice (see video here).

He then wrote two books, the first of which was called ‘Blowing Up Russia’. In it Mr Litvinenko alleged Putin had masterminded the 1999 apartment block bombings in Moscow, which had been blamed on Chechen separatists. These caused hundreds of deaths, sparked the second Chechen war and paved the way for Putin’s ascendency to President of Russia. A TV documentary based on the book, called ‘Assassination of Russia’, was promoted by three members of the Russian parliament who tried to investigate the allegations. All three were killed or subsequently died in unexplained circumstances.

Undeterred, Mr Litvinenko then published his second book, ‘The Gang from the Lubyanka’. His central allegation was that: “The main secret [in Russia] is the relationship of our President Putin and the criminal element by the name of Barsukov-Kumarin. This is the leader of the Tambov criminal organisation.” His actions could be indicative of a reckless flair for self-publicity.  Either that or he had decided to adapt the tactic, beloved of many spies, of ‘hiding in plain sight’. So, instead of blending into the crowd he chose to stand out as far as possible, believing that by being so public with his accusations no action could be taken against him. Two weeks before his poisoning he even gave a speech in London’s Frontline Club to accuse Putin of ordering the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (see video here). But as Mr Emmerson, counsel to the Litvinenko family, said in his opening statement: “In revealing Putin’s links to organised crime, Mr Litvinenko had reached a point where he was hovering near the flame like the proverbial moth.” Bold stuff.

Less is known about Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun, as they are not contributing in any way to this inquiry.  This is primarily because Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service has issued warrants for their arrest for Mr Litvinenko’s murder (see here and here). So we’re not expecting to see them any time soon, either in person or video link. But the inquiry did hear evidence from earlier statements made by Mr Lugovoy, who was by far the more loquacious.

The inquiry heard from a press conference Mr Lugovoy, (who is currently a Russian MP) gave in 2007, in the wake of the allegations against him.  He described how he was born into a military family and was “brought up in the tradition of a real Russian officer”. He said he was “proud that for the last few years…Russia started to gain its place in the world as a stage of geopolitical importance, which has always influenced politics and I hope will influence politics. It was so before the October revolution, and after it. There was a small period of time when nobody took Russia into account for ten years. Now, gentlemen, you will have to take Russia into account”. He considered Mr Litvinenko a traitor and, when asked if he should be killed in the interests of the Russian state answered: “If someone has caused the Russian state serious damage, they should be exterminated. This is my firm belief and the belief of any normal Russian.”

Retired British Major General, John Holmes, head of a security company for which Mr Litvinenko was a consultant, said in evidence on February 9th that “it’s not an open book in Russia…Russia is a very opaque place”. Mr Lugovoy’s statement was a rare example of unequivocal Russian clarity.

More to follow…

All linked material reproduced here is courtesy of the Litvinenko Inquiry –