Ex-KGB spy accused of Litvinenko murder says MI6 tried to recruit him

Andrei Lugovoi A Russian former intelligence officer, who is accused by the British government of having killed another Russian former spy in London, said the British intelligence services tried to recruit him in 2006. British government prosecutors have charged Andrei Lugovoi with the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, a former employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor agencies, the FSB. In 2006, Litvinenko died in London, where he had defected with his family in 2000, following exposure to the highly radioactive substance Polonium-210. In July of 2007, the British government charged Lugovoi and another Russian, Dmitri Kovtun, with the murder of Litvinenko, and expelled four Russian diplomats from London. Last week, following the conclusion of an official inquest into the former KGB spy’s death, the British government took the unusual step of summoning the Russian ambassador to London, to file an official complaint about Moscow’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi and Kovtun to the United Kingdom.

But Lugovoi, who is now a member of the Russian Duma, denies any involvement in Litvinenko’s murder and has dismissed as “completely absurd” the inquest’s conclusion that he was behind the killing. Speaking last week on Russian television, Lugovoi reiterated his criticism of the report and claimed British intelligence had tried to recruit him shortly before Litvinenko’s murder. The Duma member was a guest on This Evening, a high-profile talk show on Russia’s Channel 1 television, hosted by Vladimir Sovolyev, a popular television personality and talk show host. Lugovoi told Sovolyev that he found it interesting that the British government “was always happy to grant me visas” to travel to the UK, even though London knew he was a former KGB spy. “Then, in May of 2006”, approximately six months before Litvinenko was killed, “MI6 tried to recruit me”, he added. He was referring to the Secret Intelligence Service, Britain’s primary external intelligence organization.

The former KGB officer then reiterated his longstanding argument that he and Kovtun were also poisoned by the same Polonium given to Litvinenko by the person or persons who killed him. He told Sovolyev that, after meeting Litvinenko in London a few days before his death, he fell violently ill and had to spend several months in a Russian hospital recovering from radiation poisoning. Lugovoi also hinted that the British government may have killed Litvinenko for reasons of its own. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on Lugovoi’s statement, but said in a press release that London’s accusations against the two former spies were “politically motivated” and “non-transparent”. The UK maintains that Lugovoi and Kovtun fell ill because they did not handle the Polonium given to them by their handlers with the appropriate amount of care.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 January 2016 | Permalink

Britain summons Russian envoy to protest killing of ex-KGB spy in London

Sir Robert OwenThe British government has taken the unusual step of summoning the Russian ambassador to London, following the conclusion of an official inquest into the death of a former KGB officer who is believed to have been killed on the orders of Moscow. Alexander Litvinenko, an employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor organizations, the FSB, defected with his family to the United Kingdom in 2000. But in 2006, he died of radioactive poisoning after meeting two former KGB/FSB colleagues, Dmitri Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy, in London. A public inquiry into the death of Litvinenko, ordered by the British state, concluded this week after six months of deliberations involving sworn testimony by over 60 witnesses, including British intelligence officers who worked closely with Litvinenko.

In releasing the inquiry report, the presiding judge, Sir Robert Owen, said it was clear that Kovtun and Lugovoi “were acting on behalf of someone else” when they killed their former colleague in London. He added that members of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, including the Russian president himself, had “motives for taking action” against Litvinenko, “including killing him”. Moreover, President Putin’s systematic protection of Lugovoi, the primary suspect in the case, whom Russia currently refuses to extradite to the UK, “suggest a level of approval for the killing” at the highest levels of the Russian government, said Sir Robert.

Speaking during a session in the British House of Commons on Thursday, the UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May described Litvinenko’s killing as “a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and civilized behavior”. On the same day, David Lidington, a Minister of state at the British Foreign Office, who currently serves as the country’s Minister for Europe, summoned the Russian Ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, to file an official protest against Litvinenko’s murder. Meanwhile, the British state has moved to freeze the assets of the two main suspects in the case, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said further punitive measures against Russia were possible. Speaking to reporters in Davos, Switzerland, where he is participating in the World Economic Forum, Cameron said Britain wanted to have “some sort of relationship” with the Kremlin in light of the situation in Syria. But Whitehall would “look very carefully at the report and all the detail” and would proceed “with clear eyes and a very cold heart”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 January 2016 | Permalink

Long-awaited British report to blame Kremlin for ex-KGB spy’s death

Alexander LitvinenkoThe long-awaited concluding report of a public inquiry into the death of a former Soviet spy in London in 2006, is expected to finger the Russian state as the perpetrator of the murder. Alexander Litvinenko was an employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor organizations, the FSB, until 2000, when he defected with his family to the United Kingdom. He soon became known as a vocal critic of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2006, Litvinenko came down with radioactive poisoning after meeting two former KGB/FSB colleagues, Dmitri Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy, at a London restaurant. In July of 2007, after establishing the cause of Litvinenko’s death, which is attributed to the highly radioactive substance Polonium-210, the British government officially charged the two Russians with murder and issued international warrants for their arrest. Whitehall also announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from London. The episode, which was the first public expulsion of Russian envoys from Britain since end of the Cold War, is often cited as marking the beginning of the worsening of relations between the West and post-Soviet Russia.

A public inquiry into the death of Litvinenko, ordered by the British state, has taken over six months to conclude. In the process, the judge in charge, Sir Robert Owen, has heard from 62 witnesses. The latter include members of the Secret Intelligence Service, known commonly as MI6, for which the late Russian former spy worked after his arrival in Britain. The release of the inquiry’s report is expected this week. But British media have quoted unnamed “government sources” as saying that the long-awaited document will point to the Russian state as the instigator, planner and execution of Litvinenko’s death. One source was quoted as saying that the report will identify “a clear line of command” and that “it will be very clear that the orders came from the Kremlin”.

It is not believed, however, that the report will point to Russian President Vladimir Putin as having had a role in the former spy’s murder. Nevertheless, there is speculation in London and Moscow about the British government’s possible response to the inquiry’s report. One unnamed source told the British press that the report’s findings would place Whitehall “in a difficult position”, given London’s current cooperation with Russia in Syria. However, the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to face renewed pressure from the public and from opposition parties to take action against Russia, should it be confirmed this week that the Kremlin was indeed behind Litvinenko’s killing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 January 2016 | Permalink

Moscow is working with Taliban against ISIS, says Russian envoy

Zamir KabulovRussia’s official envoy to Afghanistan has said that Moscow is now working with the Afghan Taliban in order to stop the growth of the Islamic State in the region. Many Taliban fighters are direct descendants of the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns who fought the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan and fought a bloody decade-long war there. But the militant group, which today continues to control much of Afghanistan, despite a prolonged American-led military effort to defeat it, is now being challenged by the Islamic State. Known also as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the group enjoys growing popularity in Afghanistan, and some tribal warlords have already declared their allegiance to it. In contrast, the leadership of the Taliban has rejected the legitimacy of ISIS and refused to recognize its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the caliph of all Sunni Muslims. According to Sunni doctrine, a caliph is the recognized political and religious successor to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, and thus commands the Muslim ummah, or community.

For the past two years, allegations have surfaced in the world’s media that Russia, fearing the continuing growth of ISIS in Central Asia, has reached out to the Taliban in hopes of halting ISIS’ popularity. Last week, however, Zamir Kabulov, Moscow’s special envoy to Afghanistan, openly admitted that Russia is collaborating with the Taliban against ISIS. “The interests of the Taliban completely coincide with ours”, said Kabulov, and added that Moscow maintains “communication channels with the Taliban to exchange intelligence”. It is important to note that Kabulov, who was born in Soviet Uzbekistan, is arguably the most knowledgeable Russian diplomat on matters relating to Afghanistan. Until 2009, he served as Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, having also served in Iran and Pakistan. Western observers believe that Kabulov is not simply a “career diplomat”, as he presents himself, but a former officer in the KGB, the USSR’s foremost intelligence agency. He is also believed to have served as the KGB’s chief of station in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, and to have worked closely with Khad, the intelligence agency of Soviet-dominated Afghanistan.

Kim Sengupta, a defense correspondent of British broadsheet The Independent, argues that Kabulov’s announcement reflects the growing ties between the Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the KGB’s successor agencies, and the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s current intelligence agency. The latter maintains open lines of communication with the Taliban. There is also a question about the extent of Russia’s collaboration with the Taliban in pursuit of common goals. Kabulov implied last week that the collaboration centers on intelligence-sharing. But Sengupta suggests that Moscow may also be supplying weapons and ammunition to the Taliban, through Russian ally Tajikistan. He also notes that other regional powers, including China and Iran, are warming up to the Taliban, which they increasingly view as a more reasonable alternative to ISIS.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 January 2016 | Permalink

Head of Russian military intelligence dies unexpectedly at 58

Igor SergunThe director of Russia’s powerful military intelligence agency has died unexpectedly at 58, according to the Kremlin, which has yet to release precise information about the circumstances of his death. General Igor Sergun had led the Main Intelligence Directorate, known as GRU, since 2011, when he replaced his predecessor, Colonel General Aleksandr Shlyakhturov, in a Kremlin-instigated reshuffle. The Russian government said at the time that Shlyakhturov, who had spearheaded a major shake-up of the GRU since his appointment in 2009, had “reached retirement age” and gave no other reason for his sudden replacement. General Sergun’s death was announced in a statement posted on the official website of the Kremlin on January 4. It said that the GRU director had “suffered a sudden death” on January 3. It gave no further details as to the exact cause or circumstances surrounding the general’s death.

General Sergun was a career GRU officer, having joined the service as soon as he graduated from the Military Academy of the Soviet Army in 1984. Under his leadership, the GRU —Russia’s largest intelligence agency, which operates under the supervision of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces— became increasingly important in Moscow’s foreign policy maneuvers. The agency was central during the Russian military campaign in Georgia in 2008, and observers considered its role during the onset of the eastern Ukraine crisis in 2013 as indispensable for Russia. This view was reflected early in 2014, when the European Union and the United States imposed economic sanctions on General Sergun, accusing him of coordinating “the activities of GRU officers in eastern Ukraine”.

The January 4 online statement by the Kremlin quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly contacted the late general’s family to offer his condolences. The Russian leader was quoted as saying that General Sergun had given his “life in its entirety to the service of the homeland and the Armed Forces” of the Russian Federation. The late general was “respected for their professionalism, strength of character, honesty and integrity”, said the statement. Moscow has not yet announced Sergun’s replacement at the helm of the GRU.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 January 2016 | Permalink

ISIS members attempting to target Russians in Thailand, FSB warns

ThailandRussian intelligence officials have warned authorities in Thailand that the Islamic State is planning to strike at Russian targets in the Southeast Asian country. Thai authorities received the warning in a memorandum dated November 27, 2015, which came from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The document, marked ‘urgent’, warned of a series of coordinated attacks against Russian-related businesses and facilities in several cities across Thailand. Several Thai news sites, as well as CNN in the United States, said they had seen the memo. It was allegedly forwarded last week from the Royal Thai Police Special Branch division to police units across the country. It warned that the FSB had identified at least 10 Syrian citizens, all members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who had entered Thailand between October 15 and October 31.

According to the FSB memorandum, the ISIS operatives had entered Thailand in three separate groups, arriving to the country from different international destinations. The largest of the groups, consisting of 4 members, is believed to have traveled to the coastal city of Pattaya (pictured), in eastern Thailand. Two more operatives went to Phuket Island in the Andaman Sea, while two other Syrians traveled to capital Bangkok. The two remaining members of the group went “to an unknown location”, said the FSB memorandum. After receiving the FSB memorandum, the Royal Thai Police issued a warning that ISIS may be trying to harm “Russians and Russia’s alliance with Thailand”. They also called for heightened security around tourist spots frequented by Russian tourists.

Phuket and Pattaya are busy resort destinations for Russian tourists, nearly 2 million of whom visit Thailand each year, many of them in December. The Russian Federation maintains consulates in both cities, in addition to the Russian embassy in Bangkok. When asked by reporters on Friday about the FSB memo, Royal Thai Police officials said they had not been able to locate the alleged ISIS members, but added that security had been increased across the country. General Thawip Netniyom, who heads the country’s National Security Council, said no “unusual movement” had been detected, and insisted that “everything is safe” in the country.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 07 December 2015 | Permalink

Analysis: The real danger in Syria is not ISIS, but a war between major powers

Vladimir PutinThere are many unpredictable aspects of the Syrian conflict, but the downing of the Russian bomber by Turkish jets on Tuesday was not one of them. Indeed, given the simultaneous military campaigns taking place in a relatively small swath of territory by Russian, American, French, Syrian, Iranian, and other forces, it is surprising that such an incident did not happen earlier. Nevertheless, the downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 by Turkish jets marked the first attack on a Russian fighter aircraft by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member state since 1953. Although this incident is not by itself sufficient to provoke an armed conflict between Turkey and Russia, it illustrates the main danger confronting the world in Syria: namely a conflagration between regional powers, many of which are armed with nuclear weapons.

In response to earlier incidents, Turkey had warned the Russian Air Force that it would not tolerate further violations of its air space by Russian jets conducting an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The message delivered to the Russian ambassador in Ankara was that Turkish pilots would be ordered to open fire next time. That was precisely what happened on Tuesday, when a Turkish F-16 jet brought down a Russian bomber aircraft with a single missile strike. By most accounts, the Russian airplane was barely two miles inside Turkish airspace, presented no immediate threat to Turkey’s national security, and would probably have returned to Syrian airspace within seconds. But that did not stop the Turkish F-16 from shooting down the Russian plane. Adding injury to insult, Turkish-backed rebels on the Syrian side of the border shot dead one of the plane’s two Russian pilots and opened fire on a Russian rescue team that tried to save the crew, killing at least one marine.

Rather expectedly, a visibly furious Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not used to being challenged militarily, described the incident as “a stab in the back” by “accomplices to terrorists”, and warned Ankara of “serious consequences”. But why would Turkey provoke Russia in such a direct way? Like every other country involved directly or indirectly in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey and Russia wish to see the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Q Quotedestroyed. But they differ drastically on what should follow. The Kremlin is adamant that President al-Assad, whom it considers its strongest ally in the Middle East, should remain in power. The Turks, on the other hand, view the Syrian president as an existential threat, due to his support for Kurdish militancy throughout the region.

The roots of the animosity between the Turkish state and the al-Assad regime go back to 1978, when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was established in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which was at the time occupied by Syria. The PKK is a Marxist militant organization that seeks to establish a Kurdish homeland in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. The group was actively trained, funded, armed and protected by Syria and the Soviet Union. The latter was actively interested in destabilizing Turkey, a NATO member, while Syria used the PKK to exercise pressure on its northern neighbor, with whom it was embroiled in a series of complex land- and water-rights disputes. In 1998, the al-Assad regime was forced to expel PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who was living in Damascus under Syrian protection, after Turkey threatened an all-out war if the Syrian intelligence services continued to shelter the PKK leadership.

Ankara saw the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 as an opportunity to get rid of the al-Assad regime, which it sees as a primary threat to regional stability. Along with the United States, Turkey has been funding, arming and training a host of Syrian rebel groups, while at the same time hosting over 2 million refugees from Syria. The subsequent rise of ISIS alarmed America and its Western allies; but in the eyes of Ankara, ISIS pales into insignificance in comparison to the resurgence of Kurdish nationalism, which has been fueled by the demise of Ba’ath in Iraq and the fragmentation of Syria. For Turkey, Kurdish separatism poses an existential threat to the survival of the Turkish Republic, and is the primary reason for its involvement in the Syrian conflict.

It follows that Russia’s entry in the Syrian Civil War strengthens President al-Assad and the PKK, and is thus regarded by Turkey as a direct threat to its national security. Ankara is also concerned about France’s efforts to build a broad anti-ISIS alliance that includes Russia, and fears that the West is now openly flirting with the possibility of allowing al-Assad to stay in power in Damascus. The deliberate downing of the Russian airplane, which was undoubtedly authorized by the most senior levels of government in Ankara, was aimed at disrupting France’s efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition, while at the same time pushing back against Russia’s regional ambitions.

What will happen next? Theoretically, Turkey could invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which would compel member-states to rush to its assistance. In reality, however, such an eventuality is remote, especially given the expressed willingness of Western leaders to help deescalate the Turkish-Russian row. Following their closed-door meeting on Tuesday, French President FrancoisQ Quote Hollande and his American counterpart Barack Obama went out of their way to avoid mentioning the Russian plane incident, and briefly commented on it only after they were asked to do so by reporters. This does not mean that Russia will not respond; but it will most likely do so behind the scenes, probably by increasing its support for the PKK and other Kurdish separatist groups.

The downing of the Russian bomber highlights the immense contradictions and complica- tions that plague the anti-ISIS forces involved in the Syrian Civil War. It is clear that ISIS is now in a position to attack targets that are located far from its territory in Syria and Iraq, or in its wilayah (provinces) in Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere. However, the threat that ISIS currently poses to international peace and stability is at most marginal and symbolic. Of far more importance to the security of the world is the possibility of an armed conflagration between regional powers, which are being drawn into Syria by the vacuum created by the civil war. All of these regional powers, including Turkey, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, and the US, are heavily armed, many with nuclear weapons. Moreover, they radically disagree on what a post-ISIS Middle East should look like.

The possibility of a serious conflagration between heavily armed regional actors will be removed only if and when the Syrian Civil War ends, even if that results in the loss of land to the so-called Islamic State. That must be the immediate goal of the Combined Joint Task Force and every other regional actor that wishes to see the end of ISIS. It is only after peace has been achieved in Syria that ISIS can be dealt with effectively.

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