The list of murders laid at the feet of Vladimir Putin has gotten so long now that you need a chart to keep track of them.
That’s just what the Association of Former Intelligence Officers produced in a recent edition of its quarterly bulletin, The Intelligencer. To be sure, AFIO, which represents 4,500 former CIA, FBI and military intelligence veterans, is steeped in Cold War hatred for the Kremlin. But even if its chart were off by half, the list of Moscow’s suspected victims would be grimly impressive: There are 40 names on the list assembled by Peter C. Oleson, a former assistant director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Oleson put together his list before longtime Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza fell deathly ill from poison last week in a Moscow hospital. And before a former KGB general, Oleg Erovinkin, was found dead in the back of his car in Moscow the day after Christmas. Erovinkin was suspected of being a source for Christopher Steele, the ex-British intelligence officer who assembled the notorious “golden shower” memorandum on alleged connections between President Donald Trump’s camp and the Russian president. After Steele was unmasked as the author of the dossier, he went into hiding. He may well have had the fate of other Kremlin critics in mind.
“I sympathize with him. I wouldn't want to stick around,” Oleson told Newsweek in a January telephone interview. “Mind you, I'm not sure whether he's hiding from the Russians or just hiding from the press."
But considering the sheer number of dissidents, defectors, journalists, disaffected former Putin cronies and rivals who have died under suspicious circumstances since the former KGB colonel first came to power 18 years ago, Steele’s precaution is well founded, he said. “One or two or three, you could always explain away, but dozens? You have to say, ‘No, they're not innocent deaths here,’" Oleson said.
Through the years, poison has felled many a Kremlin critic, as Oleson’s list shows. On February 2, Kara-Murza, a former Washington, D.C.-based television correspondent active in Russian liberal opposition parties and movements since Putin's rise, was hospitalized. His wife told reporters the diagnosis was "acute poisoning by an undetermined substance." It was the second time that Kara-Murza, 35, had mysteriously fallen ill. The first time was in 2015, the same year his friend Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition, was cut down by an assassin’s bullet just outside the Kremlin walls.
Related: Trump, Russian spies and the infamous 'golden shower' memos
Observers were quick to compare Kara-Murza’s misfortune to that of Alexander Litvinenko, a disenchanted former Russian security agent poisoned to death by radioactive polonium-210 in London in 2006. “You may succeed in silencing me, but that silence comes at a price,” Litvinenko said as he lay dying. “…The howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”
Litvinenko, who British intelligence was supporting while he did private work for a business risk-analysis firm, was said to be investigating Spanish links to the Russian mafia when Lugovoy, a former KGB bodyguard, allegedly slipped the polonium into his tea. The context of his murder is plumbed in a heart-pounding new book on the affair, A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia's War with the West, by British journalist Luke Harding.
“Litvinenko wasn't exactly James Bond,” writes Harding, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. “But he was passing British intelligence sensitive information about the links between Russia mafia gangs active in Europe and powerful people at the very top of Russian power—including Putin.” All together, Litvinenko would say, the Russian president, his ministers and their mobster pals composed what could only be called “a mafia state.” Or, as Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly put it to President Donald Trump the other day, “He’s a killer.”
“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump said in a remark that seemed to defend Putin and drew widespread rebukes. Then again, he may be talking from experience in his rough-edged New York real estate world, where he rubbed elbows with labor union mobsters, according to several published reports, and he's repeatedly expressed his deep loathing for reporters. "I hate some of these people. But I'd never kill them,” he said at a 2015 rally.
Even if he were tempted to give in to his loathing, he’d have a long way to go to catch up to what the Kremlin boss is suspected of.
Of course, it’s been impossible to prove Putin had a hand in any of the nearly 40 deaths he or his cronies are suspected of carrying out. But there are just so many untimely demises of Russian dissidents, journalists and others that AFIO’s Oleson decided to include them all in his list, no matter that foul play was ruled out in some. One such is the odd death of former Putin crony Mikhail Lesin in a Washington, D.C. hotel room in November 2015. Some accounts speculated that he “may have been talking to the FBI to avoid corruption charges,” Oleson notes. Police ultimately decided he stumbled and died from acute alcohol poisoning.
“I still have a question in my mind, not that I'm overly suspicious, but he would have been a prime candidate for this kind of attempt, given what he was doing and what Putin has shown that he has done with others,” Oleson said. “You have to wonder.”
Kara-Murza was still suffering from the effects of his 2015 poisoning—nerve damage on his left side that caused him to walk with a cane—when he fell ill again last week. As with that earlier incident, his doctors say they can’t pin down exactly what put him in the hospital again. His wife said she has sent samples of her husband’s blood, hair and fingernails to a private laboratory in Israel for analysis.
In a 2015 interview, Kara-Murza said the likely culprit in his poisoning was a "very sophisticated" substance that typically only the Kremlin’s security services would have access to. Meanwhile, he has powerful American friends looking out for him. One of them is Senator John McCain of Arizona. On Tuesday, the Republican lawmaker took to the Senate floor to defend his Russian friend and denounce Trump for equating Putin’s murders with some unidentified killings that the president suggested the United States had carried out.
Kara-Murza "knew that there was no moral equivalence between the United States and Putin's Russia,” McCain fumed. “I repeat, there is no moral equivalence between that butcher and thug and KGB colonel and the United States of America.... To allege some kind of moral equivalence between the two is either terribly misinformed or incredibly biased.”
Oleson’s list makes the point. The harshest critic of the United States could never come up with anything like it