Oct 16, 2021

Russia: Between Poison and Vaccine

Russia's ignoble policy of intolerance and eliminating by all means possible every form of opposition has again manifested by the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader and a well-known President Putin's critic. Mr Navalny, 44, suddenly fell ill on a flight to Moscow from Tomsk, a city in Siberia. He had a black tea at an airport coffee shop before getting on the plane that morning and it is believed that he was poisoned. His plane later made an emergency landing in Omsk and he was treated in Omsk Emergency Hospital. And later he was flown to Berlin and the German experts and authorities have since confirmed, after detoxicological test, that he was poisoned with a chemical nerve agent of the Novichok group, a military-grade neurotoxin – the same biological weapon that was used in the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter in the U.K about two and a half years ago. This is not the first time Mr Navalny would be poisoned. The German government and the world leaders have since condemned the attack. German chancellor Angela Merkel has demanded that the Russian government should provide an explanation on the incident and also threatened to stop the gas pipeline project by the two countries. The very expensive and ambitious, but controversial project is currently at the final stage. The European Union officials are also said to be weighing up how to respond and the appropriate action to be taken against Russia. Sadly, as we mentioned above, this is not the first time that Russia is being accused of using nerve agents, poison against the opposition in recent times. In 2018, this same poison was used against a former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and the daughter in Salisbury, UK. Mr Skripal, a double agent incurred the wrath of Kremlin when he started spying for Britain and also passed the identity of dozens of his country's spies to the U.K.'s MI6. The then British Prime Minister Theresa May was reported to have said that it was highly likely Russia was behind the poisoning. And an intelligence analyst Glenmore Trenear-Harvey, who formerly worked for MI6 also said that he believed the case has the hallmarks of Putin's involvement. Listen to him, “For this to be in a shopping mall, for this to be in public, and for the fellow himself to be a former intelligence officer, immediately one looks to potential attackers, ultimately that would be as the result of President Putin authorizing it,” In fact, the surveillance footage of the movement of those Russian intelligence operatives that flew into UK that period also pointed to the same conclusion. The whole world saw it. And I hope you still remember the slow but painful death of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in 2006 also in London. Litvinenko, 43, was also an outspoken critic of Putin who fled Russia for Britain six years before he was poisoned. He died after drinking green tea laced with the rare and very potent radioactive isotope at London's Millennium Hotel. In a report published in 2016, a British judge found that Litvinenko was killed in an assassination carried out by Russia's security services – with the likely approval of President Vladimir Putin. As usual, Russia denied any responsibility for Litvinenko's death. The other guy's was black tea and for Litvinenko it's green tea. Russian tea!… All these where investigated and reported to have Russian finger prints on them. We don't want to talk about others like the murder of another opposition politician Boris Nemtsov's in Moscow, etc. Yes, today it is the Russian citizens, but tomorrow it can be other nationals, these weapons could also be used in external conflicts or even be transferred to rogue nations and terror groups. Unfortunately, Russia's aggression does not stop with the elimination of internal dissenting voices. Look at the annexation of Crimea, the invasion Ukraine, the claim of the Arctic and the natural resources, its constant provocative intrusion into other countries' air and maritime space. American air force is always scrambling fighter jets to intercept and wade off Russian surveillance planes of the coast of Alaska. As I write, the dust is yet to settle on the recent confrontation between a US and Russian military convoys in Syria. Or should we talk about Russia's reported vexatious meddling in the 2016 American presidential elections? The issue has simply refused to go away in the US. And, unfortunately, again, this same Russia, with Iran and China are being accused of launching another cyber attacks on US 2020 presidential campaign just two months to the election. Today, in violation of UN embargo, there are about 5,000 Russians mercenaries in Libya and it is also being accused of supplying arms to one of the warring factions. Russians are notorious for violating treaties, resolutions and agreements. The international community, especially the West, is always suspicious of Russia. There is that mutual distrust, perpetual struggle and competition, constant spying and permanent sabotaging of interest between them. Now, there is this fear that Russia may soon (if not already) start exporting these very lethal substances and the likes to others as it is seen as a country that is desperate and ready to do everything, anything to earn money and remain relevant. Will the United Nations, European Union, NATO and the world continue to watch as this happens? Each has a role to play in stopping this threat. Or will they again back down as soon as the Russians flaunt their nuclear strength? Remember Mr Putin did that as the EU was talking about sanctions during the Litvinenko incident. He told them to remember that Russia was a nuclear state and everybody scampered home immediately. What happened to all the treaties against development of such biological, chemical and nuclear weapons? Are they unenforceable?? Unfortunately there is already proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons. We saw chemical weapon used by Syrian government against her people. And I was surprised recently to hear that it was also used in the first Gulf war. A soldier friend of mine and a victim who is still battling with the effects till today brought that to my notice. She said she is today the only surviving victim from her unit. Presently, Russian mercenaries in Libya are also been accused of using chemical weapons, a nerve agent against GNA forces in Salah Al-Din area in southern Tripoli. These weapons are just everywhere. We believe that Russia's internal and external aggressive actions stem from a people trying to survive, compete and regain their lost glory. But they are going about it in a wrong way. I believe that what they basically need now to take their rightful place is an urgent economic and political reform. They must get these two right if they really want to stage a comeback. Presently it looks like it is agitated on all fronts and this is affecting its behaviour and relationship with others. She must look inwards to solve her problems and also learn how to move on with the rest of the world in a positive competitive way. First it must free up the political space. Russians must be allowed to express themselves politically. You cannot claim to be a democracy when you gag and eliminate all forms of opposition. Democracy thrives on freedom and rule of law. There must freedom of speech, freedom association and freedom movement and when you feel that somebody has done something wrong then charge him to court for trial. Don't suspect, torture and eliminate as is the current situation. No. Secondly, the country must decisively deal with corruption. The problem of Russia is corruption. Corruption has become a way of life for Government officials and the corrupt political class in Russia. Bribery, organized crime, Mafiya and oligarchy influence must be checked immediately. For now, it looks like corruption is lawful and that there is a partnership between the government and the criminals. And more frightening is that the Mafiyas are moving out, extending their activities to other countries. And I am afraid that with their powerful influence and access they can easily steal and transfer or sell these nuclear and biological weapons. This is a country well-endowed with natural and human resources, but has been overtaken by corruption and mismanagement. Aging infrastructures: from energy to transport, industries to military. There is dilapidation, mismanagement and decay everywhere. It has some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world. But over dependence on this has also become a problem with the constant fluctuations in the energy market. We advice that it should also use some on these resources it is currently investing in arms race to build ventures that will create jobs for the citizens. The unemployment in the country is terrible high rate. And it has left its well-educated populace stranded or forced into crime and other nefarious activities. This is what needs to be done urgently and not silencing and eliminating critics and the opposition. The country should also avoid those actions that attract sanctions and alienate them from other countries and investors. Like now, the Germans are already talking about abandoning a near- finished multi-billion joint project because of the current poisoning incident. No country prospers like this. All these are avoidable with the right behaviour. Interestingly, the Russians are currently advertising their COVID 19 vaccine – Sputnik V. Their Ambassador to Nigeria, Alexey Shebarshin recently gave the samples to the Nigeria Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire in Abuja during the former's visit to the ministry. Other countries have also received same. But I see more of a country that is desperate for resources and name. Otherwise, why the haste to announce and market such a sensitive product when it has not fully gone through all the trial stages? The world and experts were shocked recently when President Putin hurriedly announced that Russia has produced the first world vaccine for the devastating virus without the due and complete procedure for coming up with such. At the time of announcement we learnt that the Russian vaccine had not gone through the last stage of trial – the third stage. And please what is the position now? Has it gone through it? A wrong or badly produced vaccine will sure wreck more havoc than the virus itself. But Mr Putin and his Russia can make the world to believe and relate better with them by always playing by rules. You cannot be giving out vaccine (life) and poison (death) at the same time and still expect people to trust you.

The Atypical Case of Alexander Litvinenko

On November 1st, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko (pronounced lit-vin-yen-ko) met two former Russian FSB agents for tea at a hotel room in London. Six hours later, back with his wife and young son, he would begin vomiting violently. He sought immediate medical attention. Later, he claimed the continued vomiting sessions contained pieces of his stomach lining. By November 23rd, 2006, the otherwise healthy forty-four year old was dead. In what would turn out to be an extremely dangerous autopsy, it was determined that he had died of poisoning by nuclear substance, Polonium 210 to be precise. The attending pathologist ticked the box for homicide as cause of death for Mr. Litvinenko. Alexander Litvinenko had come to London in 2000. He had fled his home country in fear of his life. The UK had granted him asylum shortly after his arrival at Heathrow Airport and, after sponsorship by a wealthy Russian oligarch (Berezovsky) also on the run from Russia, he took up British citizenship. The British police had an international intrigue on their hands. They soon discovered a trail of Polonium 210 throughout Europe that pointed directly to a suspect. The first trace was a ‘hot' teapot at the hotel where the meeting took place. Found only after his death, it can be quite safely assumed that other people had consumed tea from the same teapot that sent Geiger counters buzzing into the red zone. The crime was the first case where nuclear material had been used to murder someone. Since Polonium emits alpha particle radiation, as a weapon it is quite dangerous to the murderer as well as the victim. It may cause other, unintended victims too. Furthermore, it leaves a trail much like a magic marker under a blue-light. Anything the handler of this material touched would begin to glow hot for a while, and the murderer himself had better not ingest particles coming off his hands. Po 210 has a half-life that lasts an average 135 days; that is to say it's half as radioactive 135 days after it's first created, and then half again after another 135 days. Quite obviously, it poses many dangers to the handlers who use it as a weapon, but more about that later. The next place the British Bobbies found it was at the office of the oligarch who had sponsored Litvinenko's flight from Russia over six years before. It's possible his killer had obtained much needed contact information there. Also, Litvinenko had a meeting with Berezovsky later that day and may have brought traces of it with him. Lastly and crucially, it was found irradiating a hotel room in Germany where our prime suspect had stayed while in transit back to Russia. Having some 30 isotopes, Polonium 210 is quite a rare substance and has almost no known commercial uses. It can be used to dampen down static electricity in the textile industry, but its principle use is in nuclear triggers to atomic weapons. We won't get into all that, and our lack of knowledge on the topic will help make a point later on. Just accept that it isn't a readily available industrial metal found other than in a government facility to produce it through nuclear fission. Now you can understand why its use as a murder weapon began to interest, not only the British Police, but the UK security service as well. Needless to say, other powerful international security organizations will want a carbon copy of the final report on their desks as soon as available too, because it highlights an alarming lack of security in the transportation across international borders of radioactive material. If it's possible in small amounts, it's also possible to accumulate small amounts until they become adequately significant. Better get on the ball there, they mutter to themselves. Now back to the victim. Mr. Litvinenko liked to tell stories. His former employer, the FSB, an offshoot of the KGB after the collapse of the Soviet regime concerned with domestic policing, wanted him to stop telling stories. First they arrested him and charged him with acting above the powers of his position. The judge threw out the case. So they threw out the judge and charged him again. He was released anew and this time he decided to flee the country before the FSB found a judge that owed them a favor. What stories did he tell? Litvinenko was a member of the military after graduating high school. Then he joined the KGB. When the Soviet system collapsed and morphed into a mafia-run oligarchy with a tipsy president as its titular head, Litvinenko became a policeman with the FSB in charge of an organized crime unit. According to his boss he was quite good at his job, effective, reliable and honest. The story that he told the press in the nineties was that his employers came to him and his section and asked if they would be prepared to murder people on behalf of the State. A group of about 15 police officers held a press conference, some with masks, some with sunglasses to protect their identity, and declared they were part of a corrupt system in which they were asked to frame undesirables by planting evidence, create trumped-up charges, kidnap, extort, beat-up, threaten, intimidate, and even murder suspects that the establishment deemed worthy of special treatment. Think ‘Serpico' to the power of ten. In this, Litvinenko had collaboration for his accusations against the state with the colleagues who refused to go along in the corruption of justice. Litvinenko also claims he was asked to murder his part-time benefactor, the oligarch Berezovsky. His superiors in the FSB dismissed all the dissenters and began their persecution. Putin stated that it wasn't Litvinenko's job to make such accusations in public, that he should have raised them within the system so as not to scandalize the force. Based on the leader's declaration to the Press, the persecution had either explicit or tacit approval. It's at this juncture that Litvinenko became diametrically opposed to the state and its titular head. Russia hasn't changed modus operandi after the collapse of the Soviets – by all appearances they have merely erected a new sign over the door that says ‘Under New Management'. The faces are different but the methods appear to be the same. In addition, during the transition away from totalitarianism, Russia descended into a mafia-run anarchy, with criminal gangs gaining the upper hand. There were common occurrences of extortion, kidnappings, underworld assassinations, and armed gangs jockeying for supremacy in a new Wild West show. At stake were billions of dollars and power for the successful who managed with drug money and extortion to grab a share of formerly state-owned oil companies, manufacturing plants, gas and electric utilities, media empires, real estate, and so on. To call it a democracy is wishful sophistry from our Foreign Affairs ministries and State Departments, an extremely liberal use of the word; more PR spin than fact. Russia is an oligarchy with fifty to one hundred newly-minted billionaires in control of a state apparatus that still uses Soviet-style governing techniques – a mafia with a totalitarian regime that holds elections for Mutt and Jeff, and then four years later for Jeff and Mutt. The true opposition to this power equation is simply murdered. The Fourth Estate in any democracy is the press. But without a legacy of truthful reporting, the press and media in Russia has an uphill battle to establish itself as a pillar of democracy. It's no surprise then that one of several things happen when a Russian journalist exposes a corrupt official or ruling oligarch, 1) no one believes it, the Press is full of crap 2) no one cares if it's true, it's business as usual or 3) it's true, but for personal safety, you'd better stay quiet. It's also no surprise then that a true opposition to corrupt governance has not materialized. The regime in Russia, whether run by Putin and a supportive state apparatus, or by nefarious back-room oligarchs with Putin as its poster boy, have learned that suppression of the opposition begins with the media, which explains the high number of murdered journalists. When Litvinenko and his colleagues publicly declared themselves against the corruption in their midst, they did so naively in the hopes that open and wide public knowledge would save them from harm. Perhaps they felt their own sacrifice was worth the benefit, giving birth through their pain to a new and equitable democracy where wrong-doers are punished, the honest rewarded. Litvinenko, after his dismissal and subsequent flight to the UK, then wrote a book which accused the current regime of blowing up Moscow apartment buildings in order to engineer a war with separatist Chechnya. This happens to be about the same as accusing George Bush of engineering the 911 disaster in order to invade Iraq. It's a conspiracy theory, with lots of innuendo and unsupported ‘evidence'. Another unfortunate legacy engendered by the Soviet-style justice system is that you didn't need concrete evidence to convict someone of wrong-doing, all you needed was a plausible accusation and a right-wing judge put in place by the right people. Convictions with unfabricated corroborating evidence isn't a cultural norm. It's a petard that blows up as many who throw them as those who receive them. While Litvinenko learned his policeman's job under the Soviet system, he didn't learn to support accusations with proof that was incontrovertible. Lacking in his accusations are fingerprints, DNA, photos, undercover work, voluntary witness statements from Granny Gulch with nothing to gain, wiretappings where the accused says ‘I did it', evidence that would have Mother Theresa in the docket sweating with a jury of devoted Catholics each knobbing the rosary. In this vein he made many accusations against Putin and his former FSB bosses, probably egged on by his benefactor Berezovsky who held a grudge against Putin. Litvinenko had started moonlighting as a security consultant for the oligarch in order to augment his meager policeman's salary, but then, after Berezovsky spent $130,000 to spirit him out of Russia and then paid him a $6,000 per month stipend, Litvinenko was in his pocket, so to speak. One accusation was that Al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's number two man, was trained by the FSB before he joined Al-Qaida, which is generally supported by testimony from others. But other, unsupported accusations came out that were aimed directly at the Russian head of state, which were obviously targeting his reputation, the worst and most spurious was that he was a pedophile. This one apparently surfaced after Litvinenko witnessed TV footage of Putin kissing the stomach of a child handed to him during a presidential campaign walk-about. At this juncture it would seem Litvinenko had stooped too low. A film maker interviewed the prime suspect in the poisoning case, a former FSB agent named Lugovoi, who was asked about Polonium. He gave the interviewer a short, knowledgeable discourse on the topic. Lugovoi expertly explained how Po 210 emits low-level alpha radiation and is quite safe to get on one's skin because the levels are short-lived and not strong enough to penetrate, but, he warned, one should not ingest it under any circumstances. Why would an FSB agent be so informed about the levels of radiation being emitted from such an obscure isotope? The man's former duties would not have brought him into contact with it on a regular basis. Our general ignorance of such matters, even among highly informed individuals with brilliant minds means we are quite innocent, but Lugovoi had loads to say about Polonium 210. I'd hazard a guess that one in a hundred thousand could not talk about the level of radiation emitted from any given isotope with any certainty. How would anyone less than a professor of nuclear engineering be able to speak with such precision on the topic without any preparation for the question by a journalist? If you're a baker would you be able to talk about Web-page development in Javascript? Oh yes, you say, I'd embed my routines in callable modules that are pre-loaded for optimum performance. If you're a baker or a dentist, you wouldn't have even cursory knowledge of these things. The only explanation for such in-depth knowledge of an obscure topic is that he was forced to learn about it for his own safety. The fact that he is pictured entering the lobby on closed-circuit TV at the hotel in question, that his hotel room in Germany was still glowing hot with Polonium traces, and that he had quite a lot of knowledge about the subject is cause for intense suspicion by the British security forces. The Russians say this isn't enough evidence to extradite him to England, ironic given the level of burden of proof in their own courts. The UK has also failed to disclose all that it knows about the case, citing the possibility of damaging relations with the Russian Federation. The intricacy of the case brings to mind another unsolved murder which took place in London in 1978, when a Bulgarian defector died of Ricin poisoning, a nerve agent. A tiny titanium pellet was shot by umbrella into his leg. Upon inspection the pellet contained traces of Ricin. An opening to the pellet was covered with a sugary gel which melted at 37 degrees Celsius. All of this engineering and complexity with specially engineered Ricin pellets and umbrellas that shoot by secret mechanism suggests state involvement. Other murderers are more economical with their time. If organized crime wishes to murder someone, they very often want to dispose of the murderer too, so they care little about the methods used and would certainly not employ laboratories to engineer such equipment. States who murder need to re-use the murderer. That's why there is so much effort spent in developing a time lag between the event and the suspicion, it allows them to recover the agent who will presumably be re-employed, and gives them plausible deniability, hence the craftiness built into the methods. But it gives away the perpetrator to the logically minded. It is, how should we say, the art counterfeiter's many brushstrokes that give him away. The Russians enacted a law that allows the state to ‘take action' against terrorists within Russia or without. Therefore, it is within the power of the president to order the execution of an individual who undermines the state. Litvinenko, and others may have pressed the right buttons to cause their own deaths. Journalists, conscientious policemen, and opposition politicians take note – the revolution, first begun in 1905, is still causing casualties today and may do so for years to come.