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What Does Putin Want?


Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko, Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB (Free Press, $27.00)

The murder of Alexander Litvinenko stole headlines around the world. It sounded like something from an espionage thriller. A former Russian secret service agent poisoned in a Mayfair hotel with a dose of Polonium-210 delivered in a pot of lukewarm tea? Hard to believe. And then some other facts began to settle in. The victim was a British citizen, was closely associated with Russia’s premier oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, and had emerged as an implacable foe and critic of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

Now Litvinenko’s widow Marina and his friend, Alex Goldfarb, have written a compelling narrative account of the story. Not to beat around the bush about this, they prominently name the president of Russia as a suspect in the homicide investigation. New Scotland Yard has formally named and is seeking the extradition of one covert FSB agent, Andrei Lugovoi, and is possibly after two more in connection with the killing. And links between the crime and the Kremlin are at this point irrefutable.

Still, this book offers some unexpected treasures. Most significantly, it gives us an internal account of the rise of Vladimir Putin and the role that Boris Berezovsky played in that process. The entire story of Litvinenko is inextricably entangled in Putin’s rise to power: how Putin resurrected the KGB, how he endeared himself to Boris Yeltsin, became Yeltsin’s seventh prime minister, and then emerged as his dark horse successor. At each of these steps, Berezovsky is on the scene, and Litvinenko is not far away either. Once you’ve worked your way through this, you’ll realize how absurd are the Kremlin’s dismissals of Litvinenko’s importance. He is the man who knew too much. And he was viewed, very early on, as a traitor to the KGB.

But the Berezovsky-Putin tango stands apart, really as a separate story. And some of the conversations captured in the book are astonishing. Take this, for instance, a conversation from July 16, 1999 in the French resort town of Biarritz, between Berezovsky and Putin:

“Boris Nikolaevich [Yeltsin] sent me. He wants you to become the prime minister.”

“I am not sure that I am ready for that,” was Putin’s immediate response. Boris noted that he had been thinking about it.
“Yes, I know, you would rather be me.”
“I was not joking,” interrupted Putin. “Why don’t you guys give me Gazprom to run? I could handle that.” (p. 174)

At the end of the year, with Yeltsin’s stunning announcement of retirement, Putin became president of Russia. His rise was meteoric.

But was Putin’s reference to Gazprom, his expression of interest in the oil and gas sector a brush-off or a joke? Berezovsky references an earlier conversation held deep in the recesses of the old KGB headquarters on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, in which Putin, being probed about his political ambitions, replied that he aspired to be a successful businessman, and expressed again a strong interest in the oil and gas industry.

Today, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin approaches the end of his second term as Russia’s constitutional autocrat. The constitution permits him no further service to the state in such capacity – though in the post-Soviet space constitutions have a habit of being changed just as presidential term limits approach. Still, at this point the money is on Putin’s withdrawal from office. And the two questions that constantly surface in conversation in well-informed circles in Moscow are these: Who will be Putin’s Putin? That is, who will he bring up as his successor, presumably in a pact that guarantees him security and a significant measure of power and wealth? Death of a Dissident gives us no guidance on this question. But it does give us answers to the second question, namely: What does Putin want?

I for one do not believe that Putin’s response to Berezovsky was a joke or a brushoff. He has an impressive command of the facts and figures surrounding the Russian oil and gas industry. It’s obviously more than just a hobby. Indeed, the word has been for some time that he completed his kandidat nauk at St Petersburg’s prestigious mining institute and presented and defended a dissertation focused on the extractive industries and their potential role in Russian geopolitical policy-making. The hallmark of his presidency has been an extremely astute management of oil and gas assets for geopolitical objectives. In fact, Putin’s management of this sector has been little short of brilliant.

In the last two years, figures close to Putin have been placed in a number of critical positions in Russia’s oil and gas industry. At press conferences, Putin is routinely able to respond to queries about oil and gas industry developments with insightful, well-informed answers. “He talks like an oil industry analyst,” said one of my friends – an oil industry analyst.

So what at long last does Putin want? What will his career in retirement be? I’d put my money on that exchange with Berezovsky back in August 1999. It may not be Gazprom–and then again, it just might.

One way or another, Vladimir Putin is headed for a second career in the national resources industry. And the death of Sasha Litvinenko? It tells us what fate awaits those who attempt to obstruct Putin’s path. They may share the conviction of the great poet Osip Mandelstam (“I am lawfully wed to Liberty and will never discard this crown.”) But also his fate. Mandelstam died in Stalin’s Gulag.

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