Russia's Assassination Campaign Continues Against Dissent
By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
“The important thing to know about any assassination or an attempted assassination is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.” Eric Ambler, “A Coffin for Dimitrios.”
Although there are many definitions of assassination, the common element in most definitions is the murder of a prominent person for political purposes.
The word assassination often evokes threats or attempts on the life of a head of state. But in the contemporary era, Russia is playing a different deadly game. Most of Russia’s victims may not fall into the category of a prominent person, at least not generally speaking, yet these targets are important to Moscow. And one can be assured that the motivation behind the killings is most certainly political.
Russia’s Targeted Killings Involve Internal Security Matters and External Hybrid Warfare
Russia’s targeted killing campaign involves both internal security matters and external hybrid warfare efforts aimed at subverting former Eastern bloc states now looking to the West for security.
In December, Germany expelled two Russian diplomats in response to the murder in August of a Chechen exile. The brazen attack was carried out in public and ultimately resulted in the arrest of the assassin. Moscow, of course, denies responsibility, but the Kremlin has either participated in assassinations of former Chechen rebels or looked the other way while those loyal to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov carried out the hits.
Murdering a former Chechen rebel abroad falls into the internal security category of Russian killings, and this recent murder in Germany is but one example of Russia targeting Chechens abroad. The same goes for the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, or the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, both of whom were former Russian intelligence officers who defected to the West. Moscow used elaborate measures to target these individuals with the intention of sending a message to other potential defectors.
Russia Is Also a Dangerous Place for Journalists Who Challenge the State
Russia is also a dangerous place for journalists who challenge the state or any political opposition to Vladimir Putin. Numerous journalists in Russia have been murdered or disappeared in the last decade alone and the trends are not improving. What’s worse, Russia has been implicated in the murder of foreign journalists, making international criticism of the Putin regime a deadly gambit.
Putin’s political opponents fare any better than journalists, but as Russian activist and lawyer Alexei Navalny would likely attest, harassment is commonplace. It is worth mentioning that Navalny has not yet met the same fate as the late Boris Nemtsov, another Putin foe. However, that may be cold comfort.
The Importance of Aggressive Counterintelligence
Preventing the deaths of Russian citizens in Russia may not be a readily attainable goal, especially when the killings are state sanctioned. But good intelligence work by the U.S. and its European partners can go a long way toward dissuading or thwarting attempted assassinations elsewhere.
Just over four years ago, Russia attempted to kill a Bulgarian weapons manufacturer who had contracts with the Ukrainian government. The arms manufacturer, Emilian Gebrev, survived two poisonings in 2015, but Bulgarian investigators dropped the case because of a lack of evidence.
Fortunately, when Russia tried to assassinate Sergei Skripal, the operative left behind a trail that showed he not only was in Britain during the attempt on Skripal’s life, but he was also in Bulgaria during both attempts on Gebrev.
Furthermore, the identification of the novichok nerve agent used against Skripal and his daughter removed all doubt who was behind the assassination attempt. In other words, knowing that novichok (newcomer) is exclusively a Russian product, UK investigators determined that it was Moscow that purchased the proverbial bullet. London shared that information with Bulgarian authorities which helped investigators to identify other Russian agents involved in these deadly plots.
Following the trail left behind by these assassins led investigators to identify the location of the Russians’ operational base. The Russians were running operations from a location in the French Alps, but were not pursuing any targets inside France. Doing so could potentially disrupt their operations elsewhere in Europe.
Poor Tradecraft and Good Investigative Work Uncovered the Operatives
Fortunately, poor tradecraft and good investigative work uncovered the operatives anyway. While investigating the assassinations or attempted assassinations after the fact are important, but preempting attacks is especially vital.
Good counterintelligence work will play an important role in disrupting future activities even when dealing with an aggressive adversary.
In spite of the operations Russia has run in Europe, much of the continent has been slow to head off these activities. That is an unfortunate fact that needs to change.