News & Politics

Putin's Enemies List Gets Smaller as Opponents Keep Turning Up Dead

There’s nothing new about state-sponsored murder in Russia. The most famous case in the old Soviet Union was Leon Trotsky. The former head of the Red Army and prominent name in the Russian Revolution was assassinated in Mexico City in 1940.

The “retirement” of Politburo members known to oppose government policies was fairly common during the 1950s-80s. Car accidents, unexplained heart attacks, suicides — the KGB became experts at making the deaths of opponents of the regime look natural.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken the art of assassinating political opponents to a new level. Journalists, businessmen, activists, and politicians have all been targeted, with more deaths occurring all the time. Just last year, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered within spitting distance of the Kremlin.

There was actually a law passed in 2006 that gives the Russian government the authority to carry out assassinations on foreign soil. Mr. Putin has made full use of the legislation as his opponents drop dead in cities around the world.

A partial list of Putin’s murders can be found here. The New York Times highlights a few more:

Among those fleeing Russia recently is Grigory Rodchenkov, a whistle-blower in Russia’s sports doping scandal.

This is not without reason. In the case over state-sponsored doping, two other officials with knowledge of the scheme died unexpectedly as the outlines of the scandal began to emerge. Just this month, another whistle-blower, Yulia Stepanova, a runner in hiding with her husband in the United States, was forced to move amid fears that hackers had found her location. “If something happens to us,” she said, “then you should know that it is not an accident.”

“The government is using the special services to liquidate its enemies,” Gennadi V. Gudkov, a former member of Parliament and onetime lieutenant colonel in the K.G.B., said in an interview. “It was not just Litvinenko, but many others we don’t know about, classified as accidents or maybe semi-accidents.”

Most recently, a coroner ruled that blunt-force trauma caused the death of a Kremlin insider, Mikhail Y. Lesin, 57, in a Washington hotel room last year, not the heart attack his colleagues first said. In July, the Russian Interfax news agency reported that Aleksandr Poteyev, 64, an intelligence officer accused of defecting and betraying a ring of Russian spies living undercover in American suburbs, had died in the United States.

Still, the Magnitsky Act, the law that Mr. Kara-Murza was in Washington urging lawmakers to expand, has proved to be perhaps the most lethal topic of all over the years.

Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor, was jailed on tax evasion charges while investigating a $230 million government tax “refund” that corrupt Russian officials had granted to themselves. He died in 2009 after having been denied essential medical care in prison, earning the Kremlin widespread condemnation.

In response, William F. Browder, an American financier who was the target of the tax fraud during time he spent working in Russia and had employed Mr. Magnitsky, campaigned in Congress for a law punishing the officials involved in the misdeeds and subsequent mistreatment of the auditor. The proposed measure, which eventually passed in 2012 as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act, denied visas and blocked access to the American financial system for Russians deemed to have committed rights abuses and avoided punishment at home — including those involved in the Magnitsky tax fraud case.

The mystery surrounding the murder of Mikhail Y. Lesin in a downtown D.C. hotel last year continues as both local and federal authorities are keeping quiet. It was thought that Lesin may have been in town to talk to the FBI about Russian corruption involving Americans. Whatever he had to say he took to the grave with him.

Putin’s brazenness in cooly eliminating anyone who opposes him only makes him more arrogant and self assured. The next president is going to have to find a way to stymie his huge ambitions or the world will become an even more dangerous place.