With the release of the British report into the role of the Russian government in the death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, some attention is returning to how President Vladimir Putin murders his perceived enemies. Last November, in one of the most sensational cases, the Russian creator of the propaganda channel, Russia Today (RT), Mikhail Lesin, was found dead in a Washington D.C. hotel room.
Former FBI agent John Whiteside, who handled Russian espionage cases, told me in an interview that it wouldn’t surprise him if Putin had engineered the death of Lesin. “Putin is a KGB guy through and through,” he noted. Since the evidence implicates the Putin regime in the murder by poisoning of former KGB agent Litvinenko, Whiteside found it reasonable to assume that he could do the same in America. He said, “Could Putin reach out to the United States? Absolutely. I wouldn’t doubt it for a minute.”
The KGB is now called the FSB.
The speculation in the media is that Lesin was in Washington, D.C. to cooperate with the FBI, and expose corruption and other misdeeds by the Putin regime.
A one-time Putin ally, Lesin had served as Russia’s Minister for Communications and Mass Media from 1999 to 2004. He had also been Director-General of Gazprom Media Holding, Russia’s largest media group that includes television, radio, printing press, cinema production, advertising, movie theaters and Internet assets. Gazprom Media was owned by Gazprombank, the financial arm of the Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom.
Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence agent, was targeted for death because he had blown the lid off one of the KGB’s most closely-guarded secrets—the Russian hand in global Islamic terrorism. Litvinenko revealed that al-Qaeda terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had been trained by the KGB and was an agent of the Russian security services. Litvinenko died in 2006 in London—where he had fled from the Russian regime—after being poisoned by a Russian official. A film, “Poisoned by Polonium,” examines how the highly radioactive substance Polonium was used to kill him.
Robert van Voren, Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas (Lithuania) and Ilia State University in Tbilisi (Georgia), has written an article on the poisoning of Russian journalists and political figures. When poisoning doesn’t work, the perceived political enemies of the Putin regime are usually shot and killed, such as the case with journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Van Voren notes that she was hospitalized after drinking tea on a Russian flight, but the toxin was never identified because the medical staff was instructed to destroy her blood tests. She survived, but in 2006 she was assassinated in the doorway of her Moscow apartment. Among other things, she had been investigating human rights violations in Russia and Putin’s war in Chechnya.
However, GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump says he is not convinced that Putin murders journalists or political opponents.
Van Voren tells me an increasing number of people from Russia “are dying under rather suspicious circumstances,” noting that “Recently two top generals died at a relatively young age, even for Russian standards, one of them being the head of the GRU—the military intelligence service. Both had been involved in military operations in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and thus had detailed, inside knowledge of what happened and how.” The head of the GRU was Igor Sergun. His and other deaths are usually called “unexpected.”
“At the same time,” he adds, “I am very hesitant to ascribe everything that happens to opponents to the FSB [as the work of the Putin regime]. People do die or wind up in car accidents, and do have terminal illnesses or sudden deaths—even when Putin doesn’t like them.”
RT is carried in the U.S. by such giant media companies as Comcast and DISH Network, and uses Americans such as former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) chief Michael T. Flynn in its propaganda broadcasts.
“Russia has reorganized and intensified its international propaganda machine so effectively over the past decade that some Western lawmakers and diplomats say Washington now is badly losing a global messaging war to the increasingly modernized blitz of anti-U.S. content from Moscow-backed news operations,” reported Guy Taylor of The Washington Times. “As of this year, RT claimed to be available to an audience of some 700 million across more than 100 nations, where viewers can soak in its Fox News-style 24-hour television content in English, Arabic and Spanish.”
But in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the channel is not carried in the U.S. with disclaimers identifying the material as foreign propaganda. Hence, it is disguised as real “news,” on the same level as privately-funded U.S. media properties, but with the benefit of foreign state funding.
RT immediately called Lesin’s death a “heart attack,” a dubious assertion. This claim came from the Russian embassy, which sent an official to identify him, before an autopsy was conducted.
The death followed revelations that he was under investigation by the Department of Justice, based on allegations that Lesin may have engaged in money laundering and corruption.
In a letter to the Justice Department, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) said that he understood that Lesin had “acquired multimillion dollar assets in Europe, including an estate reportedly purchased through a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, during his tenure as a Russian civil servant.” Wicker added, “I also understand that following his government service, Mr. Lesin moved his immediate family to Los Angeles, California, where he acquired multiple residences at a cost of over $28 million. That a Russian public servant could have amassed the considerable funds required to acquire and maintain these assets in Europe and the United States raises serious questions.”
Van Voren told me that the Lesin case is also “rather suspicious, and one has increasingly the feeling that Putin is getting rid of people who know too much.” He added, “It is not unusual behavior: being the Al Capone of a gangster state, he must be constantly worried about everything people know about him, his past and his corrupt businesses.”
Cliff Kincaid is the Director of the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism and can be contacted at [email protected]