At Large

When Spy Games Turn Nasty

Why Britain is being bested by Putin.

By 7.23.07

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The British and Russian secret intelligence services are at it again, just as they have been since the days of the First World War. History buffs will recall the MI-6 days of Robert Bruce Lockhart and Sidney Reilly as Feliks Djerzhinsky set up the new Bolshevik Cheka to protect Lenin's revolution. The same battle between the services and their governments goes on today. Alexander Litvinenko was an easy target in London and the Russians got him in their first serious try -- albeit quite sloppily.

But we are getting ahead of the story. The modern beginnings involve a very bright Russian Jewish boy from Moscow who obtained degrees in physics and mathematics. His name is Boris Berezovsky and he once was a favorite of a Russian president...Boris Yeltsin. Starting with virtually nothing in the early 1990s, Berezovsky built a fortune initially based on shady import/export deals of new and used autos.

Berezovsky's holdings grew to include a TV network, computer, oil and aluminum industries. He soon began thinking of himself as a future political star. This was a big mistake. His and his fellow oligarchs' increasing power was deeply resented by the still entrenched leadership of the Russian security service's modestly compensated civil servants.

Boris Berezovsky reportedly had made billions of dollars during the Yeltsin years. In the immediate post-Soviet era Berezovsky was "first among equals" in the group of oligarchs who profited from their close political connection with Yeltsin's entourage.

The combination of wealth and political clout of these nouveau riche was of special annoyance to old timers from the former KGB 2nd Chief Directorate, the USSR's domestic security service parallel to the FBI. These Russian "feds" had seen the new democracy encourage the growth of criminal business operations under the guise of "free enterprise." Boris Berezovsky was considered the central figure in these non-tax paying monopolistic businesses. His connection with Chechen leadership and commercial interests did not help.

Like the good businessman he was, Berezovsky tried to buy his way out of his problem. He employed various former KGB officers, such as Alexander Litvinenko, to counter the situation. He even supported Putin's initial presidential campaign. Unfortunately for Berezovsky, Putin's rise to power also included a vigorous effort to root out corruption.

Boris Berezovsky, seeing the writing on the wall, shifted most of his wealth to Western Europe. With the security services hot on his heels, he fled to Great Britain after a few intermediate stops. That's when he made his biggest mistake.

Boris's inflated ego and equally-sized bank account led him to decide that he would lead an exile movement to overthrow Vladimir Putin and his elected Russian government. Berezovsky poured money into covert political action and aggressively sought to recruit a coup capability back in Russia. Barely escaping arrest himself, Litvinenko followed him to the U.K.

In Britain Litvinenko continued the Berezovsky campaign against Putin. He did the best he could to ingratiate himself with British intelligence by giving them everything he knew about their Russian counterparts. He became a British citizen, thinking that step might protect him from Russian countermeasures.

The Putin government tried, but failed, to have both Berezovsky and Litvinenko extradited. From Moscow's standpoint the B-group was actively seeking to undermine and eventually overthrow Russia's legitimate government. The old civil service KGB Chekists were livid at this traitorous fat cat, Berezovsky.

SIS -- as MI-6 is now known -- made it clear they would not cooperate with the Russians' desire to get their hands on the "chickens that had fled the coop." At the same time the Brits remained eager to participate in Russia's newly found economic success. A bit of a sticky wicket, wot?

It appears that the Russians sent a trusted former KGB 9th Directorate guards security officer -- now a successful businessman, Andrei Lugovoi -- on Litvinenko's trail. For some reason the Russian technical intel boffins decided to use the sophisticated radiation poison, polonium-210 to kill Berezovsky's "boy" as a lesson to Mr. B. and the rest of his crowd. The operation succeeds, Litvinenko dies and the Brits go ballistic. "Send back Lugovoi so we can interrogate him," demands the British Foreign Office.

"No way," replies the Russian justice system. "Our constitution doesn't allow such things." The British are so mad they declare four Russian embassy intelligence officers persona non grata. Moscow responds equally but adds the fact that they'll no longer cooperate on counter-terrorism matters. Escalation time!

Now here's where those intelligence guidelines come in again. Knocking off targets in an otherwise friendly country is bad -- not because assassination for political purpose is bad -- but it usually leads to a situation far worse that the original reason for the hit.

Apparently the Russians don't care. They think they taught a lesson that will pay off in the long term. Anyhow it makes them look tough to their public and the rest of the world. Nasty stuff!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.