Kommersant vs. the Kremlin


Russian prosecutors believe journalist Ivan Safronov threw himself from a fifth story window to his death. Apparently we’re to believe that Safronov, who was about to publish a story detailing his investigation into Russian arms deals with Iran and Syria, suddenly decided to give up on life. Raise your hand if you buy that?
News is now breaking that Russian justice officials told Safronov before his death that he would be prosecuted for disclosing classified information if he were to go ahead with the story. The most damaging aspect of his story apparently proves that Russia is sending Iskenders to Syria, which can be used to fire missiles into Israel.
Safronov’s employer, the Russian business daily Kommersant, has an independent, preliminary report on the events leading up to his death. The English version is here. It is chilling, and well worth a read.
This is going to have major shockwaves in Russia. Kommersant is mad. The publishers have launched their own independent investigation into Safronov’s death and seem willing to go head to head with the Kremlin. Few papers in Russia still have the guts – or independence – to take on Putin over mere policy differences, let alone breaking scandals or abuses of power.
Kommersant has proven remarkably resilient to the Kremlin’s efforts to co-opt it. That leaves Putin with a simple choice: expand intimidation tactics or back down. The former option probably involves more tragedy and will have a further chilling effect, but will provoke a stern international reaction and destroy any claim the Kremlin might have to innocence; the latter will probably involve scapegoating a mid-level official and ending letting the media climate thaw somewhat.
You can guess which I’m pulling for. Either way, Kommersant and the Kremlin are on a serious collision course.
— Scott Paul


11 comments on “Kommersant vs. the Kremlin

  1. asdf says:

    > “The Vodaphone (& Ericksson) eavesdropping was
    > transmitted in real time via four antennae
    > located near the U.S. embassy in Athens,
    > according to an 11-month Greek government
    > investigation.
    Ericsson just provides the switches there, to use the “lawful interception” facilities using ericsson software makes sense for anyone, not just ericsson. The software could have come from any other goverment or telco that snoops on ericsson switches. (Software piracy happens everywhere 😉 )
    Telecom Italia mobile is just one of many which is likely to have a copy of this software
    This is interesting since Bove`s security/snooping department there ran a 500 man private intelligence operation. This was at a time when crooked soccer refs and bankers in international takeover scandals saw their phonecalls transcribed in the tabloids. The operation from was recently busted, thanks to… No one less than Bove. It was said there where SISMI ties. Keeping that under wraps sounds like a better motive than a CIA kidnapping operation already outed at the time of the killing.
    Back to Greece. IIRC to make the GSM uplink work custom software was added. This would be a weird move for telecom or ericsson people. They could have used only ericcson software and plain telephone lines to transfer intercepted communication out of the switching center. This is the common way of doing things. If the UK or other western governments felt like funding this than they could have done so openly http://ec.europa.eu/justice_home/funding/intro/funding_intro_en.htm
    Avoiding lines from the telco suggest the whole point was to keep the telco people in the dark. Which is what the story and investigation said in the first place. Telco people found backdoors they and the goverment didn`t place.
    > Some of these transmissions were sent to a phone
    > in Laurel, Md., near America’s National Security > Agency.”
    IIRC one of the pre-paid phones had been in Md prior to the spying… or something. Anyway, like with the embassy thing, Its a mobile phone! Anyone can carry it next to anyones home and call the speaking clock. Its a “who do you want to frame today” world.
    I doubt SISMI and the CIA are as close as they once were. (Ledeens Fascist terrorist trainbombings? …those where the days.(gruesome!)) I would think the CIA assumed that even in a “plausible denyability” operation like a kidnapping that sismi would at least inform a police unit which was building a case against the target. and maybe somehow have the prosecutors in check…
    Now a bunch of sloppy big hotel bill agents are wanted in Italy. Also the CIA kinda did take the blame for those 16 words. I bet they would like people to know more about the SISMI/Ledeen role.
    Then again, SISMI would be the source to keep track of guys like Ledeen, Ghorbanifar and the other “dark side” neocons. The CIA might want a heads up if they are gonna have to take the fall for for any Iran contra 2.0.
    The moment Mark Klein commits suicide by being painted gold I will join you in bashing the US 😉


  2. rich says:

    James & Scott Paul–
    I want to second or third your comments above.
    It’s not likely ‘orders’ came ‘from the top’–not in the case of Safronov, nor Bove, nor Tsalikidis.
    You don’t have to indulge in conspiracies to know that when foot-soldiers have to pay a price, they may take exception. And when several individuals agree to take such actions it is, by definition, a conspiracy.
    And you don’t have to believe in a monolithic Russia or a Decider-ly America to understand that “[o]ne way or another, [Bush] has given this kind of conduct his blessing and my bet is he still has the power to make this behavior stop.”
    Again, the killing of Russian journalists is deplorable. The naivete is charming, though. A moralism so one-sided it’s like watching a one-legged man tell you that other guy’s too lame to win the upcoming 10k race. 😉
    Quick! Somebody post a link to Sy Hersh!


  3. rich says:

    Defenestration. Interesting post, Scott. And I share your skepticism and outrage.
    Does your reaction extend to ALL men of integrity and courage who plummet, inexplicably, to their deaths?
    Because 7-8 months ago, Adamo Bove plunged to his death in Italy. Bove’s the telecom security expert who exposed and traced the cell calls of CIA & SISMI agents who kidnapped Abu Omar and had him rendered & tortured.
    “Apparently we’re to believe that” Bove, “who was about to” finish “detailing his investigation” for Italian magistrates and “about to” meet his wife, “suddenly decided to give up on life. Raise your hand if you buy that?”
    I’m quoting your own words, Scott. Either CIA or SISMI killed Adamo Bove. Or their partners–of course. But that’s not all:
    Costas Tsalikidis–the Greek telecom security expert–was also killed b/c he uncovered that Vodaphone (& Ericksson) had been illegally wiretapping Greek citizens.
    “[A]according to testimony by Bove’s ex-colleagues in Milan, it was Adamo Bove who helped the Milan magistrates identify and reconstruct the mobile phone traffic during the kidnapping of Abu Omar in Milan on February 17, 2003. It was this crucial investigative work that led to arrest warrants for 26 American agents and many of their Italian accomplices.”
    “Moreover Bove was able to identify the mobile phones used by the SISMi agents under investigation and recently arrested. His work was particularly difficult as he not only had to identify the SISMi phones, but to crack through protective screens and scramblers, and do so without raising suspicion not only in the SISMi but among possible infiltrators in his own team.”
    “Tsalikidis discovered an extraordinarily sophisticated piece of spyware within his company’s network. The Prime Minister and other top officials were targeted, along with Greek military officers, anti-war activists, various business figures — and a cell phone within the American embassy itself. This page gives a full list of the targets, very few of whom could be considered as having even a remote connection to terrorism.”
    “The Vodaphone (& Ericksson) eavesdropping was transmitted in real time via four antennae located near the U.S. embassy in Athens, according to an 11-month Greek government investigation. Some of these transmissions were sent to a phone in Laurel, Md., near America’s National Security Agency.”
    http://www.bradblog.com/?p=3305 (scroll & follow links)
    Scott, I agree Ivan Safronov’s death was a tragedy and a crime. It should be challenged. But don’t you have an obligation to clean up your own house first? Bove & Tsalikidis were heroes; no American can say the same for their killers.
    So there are “Russian arms deals with Iran and Syria.” Big fat surprise. Everyone knows this. Or should assume it. They’re sovereign nations, and that’s what sovereign nations do. You (& whoever) need to stop obsessing about Iran, and get right with your country. Isn’t it enough the US has already lied about IUF’s coming from Iran? NYTs noted US military just uncovered an IUF mfg plant IN IRAQ. And that Saudis are supplying cash & explosives used against American troops. Isn’t it enough the US is running an illegal covert ops war INSIDE Iran? And lied about Iran’s nuke program? Given that, who needs to be checked here? Thank God someone’s supplying arms to Iran–any real GeoPolitik knows cornering Iran is reckless and stupid. Any sensate American knows that Uncle Sam doing the cornering will have ugly consequences for our security. I stated on this blog a ~year ago that choking Iran would be prohibitively costly & impossible–for this very reason.
    Equally ugly is the blackout on the killing of Bove & Tsalikidis in the US media. It’s a betrayal of American citizens on top of a betrayal of American citizens. We have a Constitution for a reason–and adhering to it abroad is an absolute necessity.


  4. Scott Paul says:

    I want to second James’s comments. I’m almost positive this is not murder on Putin’s orders. At most, it’s murder on the orders of a government minister, at least, it’s death compelled by government threats. One way or another, Putin has given this kind of conduct his blessing and my bet is he still has the power to make this behavior stop – although trying to figure out power dynamics between the FSB (security services) and the Kremlin has always been hard.
    In any case, my main point here is that Kommersant is the most powerful and angry foe the government has faced, and the coming confrontation could shake things up for the better.


  5. HAS says:

    I had read about this in the “mainstream media” but have yet to see anything as detailed, accompanied by such keen insight. Thank you and delighted that Steve has found such a great new talent for TWN.


  6. JohnH says:

    I agree with Carroll. The brutality of Putin’s methods are deplorable and stupid, because they inhumane and provide fuel for US spin meisters’ condemnation of him. Here we just send people into Permanent Obscurity. Joe Wilson’s major sins are 1) that he didn’t play ball and 2) he wouldn’t go away. Others like Phil Donohue and Gary Webb were not so lucky.
    Now that all the administration’s reasons for going to war have been totally discredited, did you ever wonder why no one is publicly investigating what the real reasons were? And why the Bush administration feels free to recycle the same litany against Iran? Many of us think we know why we have been going to war, but politicians, chattering classes, foreign policy wonks, and “serious” media outlets simply refuse to address the subject. Clearly, they understand the fate that awaits them if they don’t play ball.


  7. James says:

    I’m afraid I can’t be caught up in all this conspiracy talk. Either that or I will be caught up in the extreme double-double crossing conspiracy talk. But I certainly don’t buy the middle-of-the-road conspiracy theories. Like with Litvinenko and Politikovskaya all this does is draw attention to the arguments of those who were killed. If the Kremlin didn’t know this in the first place, they really should have learned this by now. It’s certainly possible there’s some sort of state role in this, especially as the security orgs are given a lot of autonomy, but I don’t think it’s directed from the top. Is it in Putin’s interest to have a guy nobody heard of get poisoned as he’s meeting w/ Western leaders in an EU-Russia summit(referring to Litvinenko)? Is it that shocking that Russia’s selling arms to Syria and Iran?
    I’m not saying that there’s some innocent explanation. If security forces or private groups can run this freely and violently then that doesn’t speak well of Putin’s administration either. Also, I am skeptical of the ability of Russia (or any country) to act totally rationally and not overplay its hand if it perceives a threat. But if Russia is afraid of rumor-mongering blackmailers (like Litvinenko) and “news” that everyone already knows (like Politikovskaya-abuse in Chechnya/Safronov-Iran & Syria) then the State certainly perceives itself to be more weak than it seems.


  8. Carroll says:

    Well, I can’t get that upset about these antics of Russia….it’s not like we haven’t engaged in some of the same things…except if it’s foreign press we just bomb the whole newspaper or radio station instead of whacking one reporter….course here at home we don’t have to kill ’em, we just buy them.


  9. eCAHNomics says:

    I’m also interested in the whole spate of Russian assassinations. This one is like the 3rd in just the past few months. Then add the Russian-Americans who were poisoned. Seems like Putin is more blatant than in the bad old days of communist dictatorship.


  10. JohnH says:

    I’m surprised that Russia (and China) haven’t been more active selling weapons to countries and groups the US doesn’t like. US moves NATO to their doorstep, and what would you expect them to do? Fortunately, Russia is not likely to send Stinger-like weapons to the Taliban, because they could resell them to Chechnya.
    If the US tries to get a lock on Middle Eastern oil and natural gas (i.e. by grabbing Iran) and uses energy as a weapon, I expect things could get a lot worse very quickly.


  11. John Robert BEHRMAN says:

    What kind of fools are the Russians? Are they as stupid as us in the ME. Don’t people realize that Iran and Israel are nobody’s proxy? Has nobody learned anything from 1973?


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