In the wake of what appears to be an assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal sponsored by Russia there is renewed interest in the death of other Russian exiles, including that of one Mikhail Lesin found dead in his hotel room in Washington in November 2015.
Mikhail Lesin had been a very prominent Russian figure with close links to Putin having been responsible for setting up Russia Today (RT) the international television station funded by the Russian government aiming to provide a Russian viewpoint on major global events. He went on from there to head up Gazprom Media the largest Russia media holding company which, in 2000, controversially acquired the last nationwide independent television network.
In 2014, quite suddenly and without explanation, Lesin resigned from Gazprom Media and left Russia for a home he had set up in the United States. What happened after that is not all that clear.
Following his death, in March 2016 it was concluded the cause of his death was “blunt force injuries to the head”. However other “blunt force injuries” were also identified on his neck, torso, upper extremities and lower extremities. This sounds like he had “blunt force injuries” all over his body.
There followed a 12 month period of investigation to determine the manner of his death. This included a Grand Jury investigation local police and the FBI. The Department of Justice concluded that his death was “accidental” following heavy drinking. He had apparently got so drunk he kept falling down until he killed himself. Not a common cause of death even in Glasgow.
The plot thickens when you discover that the hotel room in which Lesin was staying was paid for by the US Department of Justice. The reason for this being he was due to meet with the officers from the Department of Justice the following day to be interviewed about the operation of RT.
In summer 2017 three FBI agents spoke to BuzzFeed claiming Lesin was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat. Perhaps it could be argued that, in his drunken stupor, he had beaten himself to death with a baseball bat. Not a view the FBI agents favoured saying no one in the FBI thought this was anything other than murder. This generated a fair amount of interest at the time although no change in the official conclusion about the manner of death being accidental.
Then late last week BuzzFeed revealed a secret report had been produced in 2016 which had indicated that Lesin had fallen out with a Russian oligarch. The oligarch, who had close links to Putin, had then commissioned the Russian secret service to frighten Lesin. Whether they had been over enthusiastic in their work or the mission had been changed in the light of his impending discussions with the FBI is unknown.
Interestingly the author of that report was Christopher Steele. The same Christopher Steele that produced the report on Russian attempts to influence the US election in Trumps favour. Incidentally, the Same Christopher Steele who is now alleged to be on a Kremlin hit list according to ex KGB spy Boris Karpichkov who is now in hiding in the UK. All of this may have sounded like conspiracy theory 10 years ago but now it is difficult to see as anything other than an extra-judicial state killing.
For me there are two interesting questions if the stories about Lesin are true. Firstly, how on earth did the Department of Justice come to the conclusion that it did about the death? Even if you rule our Russian involvement Lesin would have had to have been one of the most accident prone people in the world to keep falling down until he killed himself, however drunk he was.
The second question is about the Steele claim that Lesin fell out with an oligarch who then used the forces of the Russian state to deal with the matter. If true this betrays an integration of personal, criminal and state power which reinforces a picture of the world where crime and politics are increasingly interlinked. Where the economic resources of the state are plundered by rapacious politicians and state power is used to protect and sustain outright criminal behaviour.
The evidence against Mr Putin mounts every day. He is clearly no friend of democracy, doing what he can to undermine the process in the west as he subverts it at home. The latest diplomatic response to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal has been impressive. It must however be followed up by actions on the finances of Russian oligarchs with links to the Kremlin. For some time now there have been calls for the City of London to look much more closely at the sources of money flowing through the capital from Russia and a range of other locations. These must not be seen as alarmist propaganda threatening the global finance centre’s future. On the contrary failure to take urgent and substantial action will put at risk the long term credibility of the City. Ultimately losing that credibility will cost dearly.