The front page of Sunday’s edition of The New York Times bears the headline ‘More of the Kremlin’s Critics are Ending Up Dead’. According to the long article which follows: ‘Muckraking journalists, rights advocates, opposition politicians, government whistle-blowers and other Russians who threaten that image are treated harshly — imprisoned on trumped-up charges, smeared in the news media and, with increasing frequency, killed.’ The article then cites Gennadi V. Gudkov, ‘a former member of Parliament and onetime lieutenant colonel in the KGB’ as saying, ‘The government is using the special services to liquidate its enemies. … It was not just Litvinenko, but many others we don’t know about, classified as accidents or maybe semi-accidents.’
I have two serious doubts about the Times article. First, it makes a claim about an ‘increased’ frequency of state-sponsored murder without providing any evidence that such murders are indeed more frequent than in the past. The article mentions 13 deaths. The great majority of these occurred before Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. This is hardly evidence of an ‘increasing’ frequency of state-sponsored murder
Second and more importantly, the article fails to provide evidence that most of the people it mentions did indeed die unnatural deaths and also died at the hands of Kremlin assassins.
There is certainly an element of truth in the article. It seems clear that the Russian secret services were responsible for the death of at least one of those mentioned – Ibn al Khattab – while a second – Sergei Magnitsky – died in police custody. It is also not unreasonable to claim a link between Russian intelligence and the death of Alexander Litvinenko, while the death of another person mentioned – Alexander Perepelichny – undoubtedly seems suspicious. Had the New York Times limited itself to those cases, it would have been on much more solid ground. Unfortunately, it goes beyond them and includes several more cases in which people apparently died of natural causes, or in which evidence of a link between the Kremlin and the death in question is not provided.
Take, for instance, Oktai Gasanov, who was connected to the company Heritage Capital, which Russian police accused of fraud – a case which led to Magnitsky’s imprisonment and death. But Gasanov died while the alleged fraud would have been still in its early stages. There was no reason for the Kremlin to be interested in him. Furthermore, The New York Times lists his cause of death as ‘heart failure’. Similarly, the article mentions the deaths in 2016 of two former officials of the Russian sports anti-doping agency, Nikita Kumaev and Viacheslav Sinev. I haven’t been able to find details for Sinev but Kumaev is said to have died of a heart attack. In neither case does The New York Times or any other source I have found provide any evidence that either man’s death was other than natural. There has been speculation that Kumaev was about to ‘reveal all’ about Russia’s doping policies, and perhaps The New York Times thinks that he was murdered to stop this. But if so, it doesn’t say so, let alone provide any proof.
In two other instances, the article mentions people who clearly did suffer unnatural deaths, but without giving any indication of why it thinks these deaths were linked to the Kremlin. The first case is that of Ivan Kivelidi, a business killed by cadmium poisoning in 1995. As The New York Times itself admitted at the time, then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin ‘expressed outrage over Mr Kivelidi’s death’ at a Cabinet meeting, and attended his funeral. The second case is that of Mikhail Lesin, who died of ‘blunt force trauma’ in a Washington hotel room in 2015. But Mr Lesin was a Kremlin loyalist, not an opponent. The New York Times wants us to believe that Russian intelligence killed both Mr Kivelidi and Mr Lesin, but it provides no evidence, and it seems rather unlikely.
There is a case to be made that the Russian state has been involved in some extrajudicial killings. But the lack of evidence produced by The New York Times in the majority of the cases this article lists makes its overall thesis very unconvincing.