(UPDATED ON APRIL 16 WITH YET ANOTHER DEATH.)
Here's a thought or two: Is it possible that Joseph Misfud, the Maltese professor who enticed Trump campaign coffee boy George Popadolpoulos with the disclosure that the Kremlin had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails -- perhaps the first such reference to them whispered to drooling campaign officials -- has gone missing because he's dead? Or that former campaign manager Paul Manafort isn't cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller despite the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary because that's preferable to being assassinated?
Both thoughts do not seem farfetched in the wake of news that the long hand of Vladimir Putin may have struck again with the suspected poisoning with a nerve agent of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter in England on March 4. Both are in critical condition and hang near death.
There have been over 30 other possible victims of Putin's use of assassination as a political weapon. They sometimes involve exotic, hard-to-trace poisons and often are carried out by hitmen for the FSB, a state security agency headed by Putin until he became prime minister and then president, and sometimes by mobsters loyal to Putin.
The victims include:
November 20, 1998: Parliament member GALINA STAROVOITOVA, a pro-democracy advocate, is shot to death in the hallway of her St. Petersburg apartment building.July 16, 2000: Journalist IGOR DOMINKOV, who had written of malfeasance and bribery in the Putin regime, dies of injuries suffered in a beating in the entryway of his Moscow apartment building.August 1, 2002: Parliament member VLADIMIR GOLOVLEV, a pro-democracy advocate, is shot dead on a street near his Moscow home while walking his dog.
July 3, 2003: Journalist YURI SHCHEKOCHIKHIN, a critic of Putin atrocities in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, dies from an apparent poisoning with a radioactive material shortly before his scheduled departure to the U.S. where he was to meet with FBI agents.
May 20, 2004: Uzbek diamond dealer EDUARD NEKTALOV, who owned a condo in Trump World Tower and was being investigated for Russian money laundering, is shot dead on Sixth Avenue after rumors circulate that he is cooperating with federal authorities.
July 9, 2004: American journalist PAUL KLEBNIKOV, who investigated official corruption for Forbes magazine, is shot on a Moscow street by assailants who fire from a slow-moving car. He dies a short time later when the hospital elevator taking him to an operating room breaks down.
Early September 2004: Journalist ANNA [PLITKOVSKAYA, a leading critic of Putin atrocities in Chechnya, falls violently ill after drinking poison-laced tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant. She survives.
September 24, 2004: ROMAN TSEPOV, a former KGB officer turned businessman and ostensible Putin ally, falls violently ill after visiting a KGB office on September 11 and drinking tea laced with a radioactive substance.September 14, 2006: Russian Central Bank executive ANDREI KOZLOV, who had revoked the licenses of several banks complicitous in money laundering, and his chauffeur die from gunshot wounds fired by gunmen on a Moscow street.October 7, 2006: POLITKOVSKAYA is fatally shot in the head, chest and shoulder at point-blank range in an elevator in her central Moscow apartment block. The assassination occurs on Putin's birthday.
October 16, 2006: An attempt in London to poison ALEXANDER LITVINENKO fails. The former FSB officer specialized in tracking Russian organized crime and had become a Putin foe.
November 11, 2006: LITVINENKO becomes violently ill after being poisoned by a large dose of a radioactive substance that is slipped into his tea at an upscale London hotel.
November 23, 2006: LITVINENKO dies.
November 24, 2006: Pro-democracy advocate EGOR GAIDAR, a former Starovoitova associate, becomes violently ill after being poisoned with an unknown substance while attending a conference in Ireland. He recovers.
March 2, 2007: Journalist IVAN SAFRONOV, who had written critically of the Russian military, dies in a fall from the fifth floor of his Moscow apartment in what is suspected to be a murder made to look like a suicide.January 23, 2009: STANISLAV MARKELOV, a human rights lawyer and Putin critic, is gunned down on a street near the Kremlin.July 15, 2009: NATALYA ESTEMIROVA, a human rights activist and Putin critic, is abducted from her apartment in Grozny, capital of Chechnya. Shot in the head and chest, her body is discovered 50 miles away in neighboring Ingushetia.November 16, 2009: SERGEI MAGNITSKY, a lawyer and auditor who uncovered a $230 million web of official corruption and tax fraud, dies in a Moscow prison, where he had been held without trial for 11 months, after allegedly being beaten and tortured by Ministry of the Interior officers.
November 10, 2012: ALEXANDER PEREPILICHNYY, a businessman and whistleblower who had left Russia after alerting Magnitsky to the corruption scheme, collapses and dies while jogging near his home outside of London. The death originally is attributed to natural causes, but traces of gelsemium, a chemical from a poisonous plant, are later found in his stomach.
March 23, 2013: BORIS BEREZOVSKY, an oligarch and Putin foe who was given political asylum in Britain, is found dead by a bodyguard, a ligature around his neck, in a bathroom in his Berkshire home. The death is made to look like a suicide but is suspected to be murder.
December 8, 2014: SCOT YOUNG falls from the fourth floor of a London apartment and impales himself on a railing. Police rule the death a suicide after a cursory investigation, but others believe Russia was involved because of Young's business contacts with enemies of Putin.
February 27, 2015: BORIS NEMTSOV, the leading anti-Putin democracy advocate, is fatally shot four times in the back as he walks on a bridge near the Kremlin.
May 26, 2015: VLADIMIR KARA MURZA, an opposition politician and outspoken Putin foe, suddenly takes ill during a meeting in Moscow. He suffers multiple organ failure and is diagnosed as having been poisoned. He eventually recovers.November 5, 2015: MIKHAIL LESIN, a former top Putin media adviser, is found dead in his Washington hotel room with blunt-force injuries to the head, neck and torso. He was scheduled to meet with Justice Department officials the next day.
November 8, 2016: SERGEI KRIVOV, widely believed to be a counter spy who coordinated efforts to prevent U.S. eavesdropping, suffers fatal blunt force injuries after falling from the roof of the Russian consulate in New York. Russian officials claim he died of a heart attack.December 21, 2016: YVES CHANDELON, the chief NATO auditor responsible for investigating Russian money laundering, is found in his car in a small Belgian town with a wound to the head in what may have been a murder made to resemble a suicide.December 26, 2016: OLEG EROVINKIN, a former FSB spy and possibly a key Steele dossier source, is found dead in the back seat of his chaffeur-driven Lexus in Moscow. Intelligence sources believe he was assassinated as part of an effort to wipe out a U.S. espionage network.February 20, 2017: Russian U.N. Ambassador VITALY CHURKIN, widely believed to be a spy, dies in a New York hospital after suddenly becoming ill.March 2, 2017: ALEX ORONOV, a naturalized U.S. citizen, dies under unexplained circumstances in his native Ukraine. He reportedly helped set up a meeting involving Trump lawyer Michael Cohen regarding a back channel Ukraine peace plan.March 21, 2017: NIKOLAI GOROKHOV, a lawyer for the Magnitsky family and key witness for the U.S. government in a money laundering suit against a Russian holding company, falls or is thrown from the 4th floor of his Moscow apartment. He is seriously injured but survives.March 23, 2017: DENIS VORONOKOV is shot to death in Kiev, Ukraine, after being hunted by the FSB. The former Russian military colonel and Putin insider was preparing to testify about the inner workings of the Putin regime.
April 15, 2018: Maxim Borodin, a Russian journalist who recently wrote about Russian mercenaries in Syria, dies from injuries sustained after falling from his fifth-floor balcony in Yekaterinburg on April 12. Authorities say the death was a suicide, but Borodin had told friends his flat had been surrounded by security men a day earlier.Mifsud disappeared on November 2, 2017 from the private university in Rome where he teaches.
He first met Papadopoulos on March 2016 in London and then again shortly after Papadopoulos was named as an adviser to the Trump campaign foreign policy team.
"Just finished a very productive lunch with a good friend of mine . . . who introduced me to both Putin's niece and the Russian ambassador," Papadopoulos wrote to then-campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski and Sam Clovis, national campaign co-chairman, explaining that he had been told Putin wanted to meet with the Trump team.
The "good friend" was Mifsud and the ambassador was Alexander Yakovenko, although the woman was not related to the Russian president.
In mid-April, Mifsud travelled to Moscow where he gave a speech in which he declared that Obama administration sanctions on Russia for its Crimea invasion were "suicidal" and said they had to be scrapped. Trump, a Putin sycophant and fancier of all things Russian, was the perfect person to make that happen, but only if his improbable, long-shot candidacy succeeded.
On April 26, Mifsud and Papadopoulos breakfasted in London. Mifsud told him that he had just returned from meetings in Moscow with Russian officials who had "dirt" on Clinton and "thousands" of her emails. Later that day, Mifsud introduced Papadolpoulos by email to an unidentified individual with connections to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They had multiple conversations on Skype about setting up a meeting between campaign officials and Russians which apparently did not take place, although Papadopoulos did speak of the potential benefits of such a meeting at a campaign foreign policy team meeting where Trump was present.
Then in May 2016, Papadopoulos and Alexander Downer, Australia's High Commissioner to Great Britain, got sloshed at the Kensington Wine Rooms in London. Papadopoulos blurted out that Russia had political dirt on Clinton in the form of emails. Downer later passed on this explosive news to Australian intelligence officials, who informed the FBI, which subsequently opened its investigation into Russian election interference based on the information.
Interviewed by FBI agents on January 27, 2017, Papadopoulos falsely told them that his contacts with Mifsud and Russians occurred before he joined the campaign. He was indicted, pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to the agents and agreed to cooperate with Mueller's investigation in a court filing made public on October 30.
Mifsud went missing three days later.
The 57-year-old professor's cellphone went dead, his email account disappeared and he has not sent any WhatsApp messages, his frequent means of communication with his 31-year-old Ukrainian fiancee, identified in media accounts as Anna, who recently gave birth to a daughter she says he fathered.
It is probable that Mifsud was "played" by Russians intelligence services, which frequently have made use of non-government intermediaries to achieve foreign policy objectives.
|NATASJA WEITSZ / GETTY IMAGES|
The use of assassination as a political tool in Russia has an inglorious and centuries long history. But there has been an extraordinary level of violence targeting Putin's opponents in the reemergent Russian Federation, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The frequency of state-sanctioned murder has increased under Putin following a relative lull after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. While never directly linked to any of these murders, Putin's proxies have dutifully carried out assassinations on those he deems enemies of his autocratic regime, notably journalists, human rights activists, members of opposition political parties and spies who have defected to the West, notably Alexander Litvinenko, who sought asylum in Britain in 2000 after fleeing Russia by way of Georgia and Turkey.
The slow death by poisoning of the former FSB colonel, who wasted away in a London hospital bed (photo, above) for three weeks before expiring in November 2006, was a result of a large dose of radioactive Polonium 210 that was slipped into his tea at an upscale London hotel. His symptoms matched those of Shchekochikhin, Tsepov and two officers in the KGB, the predecessor agency to the FSB, who defected to the U.S. in the 1950s and were fatally poisoned.
Litvinenko's death is unusual because the assassins, both former FSB officers, are known by name and there is ample evidence, in addition to a deathbed statement by Litvinenko, that Putin ordered his murder because he was a whistle-blower who assailed the Russian leader in public, accusing him of running a gangster state, protecting drug dealers, and ordering the murder of Politkovskaya and Putin dissident exile leader Berezovsky, who survived Litvinenko by seven years.
The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a powerful nerve agent identified as Russian-made Novichok No. 5 on March 4 in Salisbury, England has the earmarks of a Putin-ordered hit. (Both are recovering.)
Skirpal, a colonel in the KGB, had been recruited by MI6, the British intelligence service, and became a double agent who revealed the identities of several Russian spies working in Britain before being imprisoned in Russia in 2006. He was part of a 2010 spy swap, was not a known Putin critic and ostensibly had lived quietly in the cathedral town.
Meanwhile, police have cordoned off the graves of Skripal's wife, who died of cancer in 2012, and son Alexander, who died last year, as part of their investigation.
The MI6 investigation of Litvinenko's death was led by then-counterintelligence agent Christopher Steele, who would become famous a decade later for his dossier on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign's collusion in that effort.
In an ironic twist, London newspapers are reporting that Skirpal has remained active in spycraft, met regularly with British military intelligence officers and was in close contact with an unidentified Salisbury-based security consultant who worked for Steele, prompting speculation that his attempted murder was because he may have helped Steele compile his dossier.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandaland related events.