Imagine this scenario: a former press secretary for President Barack Obama and member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) the U.S. government funded parent corporation for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is found dead in a Moscow hotel room.
Despite the expensive locale just a few blocks from the Kremlin off Tverskaya Ulitsa in downtown Moscow, the Russian authorities say the victim died from blunt injuries to the head -- but the Moscow city coroner's office refuses to definitively label the act a homicide four months after the apparent victim's death. What do you think the reaction of the American media would be?
That is precisely the scenario that has confronted Russian media, with the strange announcement last week by the Washington D.C. medical examiner's office that 57-year-old Mikhail Lesin died on November 5, 2015 after blunt force trauma to his head -- and not from a heart attack or other natural causes as relatives had claimed in November.
To the U.S. mainstream media's credit, at least some outlets like The New York Times are starting to ask why it took the Washington D.C. authorities so long to release the autopsy report, and why the federal government which shares some jurisdiction in D.C. with the Metro police has been so quiet about the case. For their part, the British papers led by the UK Daily Mail and The (ex-KGB Russian oligarch owned) Independent are citing Russian activist Alexey Navalny's sensational claim that Lesin may still be alive, and that his death was faked as part of an elaborate ruse by the FBI's Witness Protection Program.
However, many mainstream journalists and those on the Russia beat aren't buying Navalny's sensational claim that U.S. customs and border control records show someone using Lesin's passport. For one thing, while data about entry and departure can be looked up on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's website, it isn't clear how Navalny obtained a copy of Lesin's Russian passport with its number. The grainy passport image released to various Russian and likely foreign run Russian language websites online may be a fake. There's also the possibility that the USDHS system merely reflected Lesin registering an international plane ticket using his Russian passport, and nothing more.
For its part, RT, the channel that Lesin helped co-found for Vladimir Putin and the Russian government, has pressed the U.S. State Department to confirm that it has provided the Russian Foreign Ministry with all of the Metro police department's information on Lesin's death. Infamously testy and slippery State Dept. spokesman John Kirby told RT's Gayane Chichakyan that the U.S. was cooperating with Moscow's request under the terms of a treaty between the two countries on sharing information regarding citizens deaths, but declined to call the case criminal after being pressed by AP reporter Matthew Lee. The Foreign Ministry told RT as of March 11 they still have not received all the information they've requested.
Navalny's claims that Lesin is still secretly alive somewhere living under a new identity after defecting with the secrets of Putin's media empire and corruption would seem to contradict him crossing a U.S. airport border using his real Russian passport and leaving behind a publically searchable trace of life -- as opposed to a new identity created after his 'death' by Lesin's American handlers.
If Navalny's scenario were true, there would also be the not so easy to handle issue of how Lesin would remain in contact with his adult children who live in the United States and own property in some of the wealthiest areas of Los Angeles without the Russian intelligence services finding out. Presumably a new identity would mean abandoning or 'widowing' Lesin's beautiful 29-year-old Siberian model concubine and their baby, or going into hiding together in some out of the way country like Thailand or Panama. It would certainly mean the end to some of the jet setting lifestyle to which Lesin's young lover Viktoria Rakhimbayeva had grown accustomed.
The claim that Lesin is alive also would make contradict the reports that a DuPont Circle hotel staff member found him passed out on the floor and that he may have been heavily drinking before suffering blunt trauma to the head, as well as what investigators told U.S. media about there being no signs of a struggle in the hotel room where Lesin was found dead. The New York Times also reported that Lesin had been in some sort of altercation before his death. If that's true it would imply either Lesin was not (yet?) a defector, or the FBI did a piss poor job of providing security for their defector, who probably should've been kept at one of the many CIA safe houses in suburban Maryland/Virginia rather than openly walking the streets of D.C.
Thus there is plenty of cold water that can be poured on the 'Lesin defected and is still alive' or 'Lesin defected and was murdered by the GRU or one of the KGB's successor agencies to silence him' theories. Especially when there's no solid proof that the Kremlin or Russian security services have murdered a single defector since the collapse of the Soviet Union, notwithstanding the wild hype created by the British press and lying UK authorities around the Alexander Litvinenko case. Yet definitive answers as to who attacked Lesin and why a 57-year-old who had been so prominent in Putin's circles was staying at the hotel in DuPont Circle last November remain elusive.
A theorist whether of the conspiracy or coincidence variety can always say the Russian security services would try to make Lesin's death look like a garden variety D.C. mugging, and street crime is a pretty common aspect of life in the U.S. capital. This way the tacit but understood rule that the CIA does not target defectors to Russia and the Russians don't kill their own traitors who flee into the arms of MI6 or Langley would not appear to be broken. However, we don't see prominent defectors like Oleg Kalugin suddenly going into hiding or declining appearances at the International Spy Museum which are open to the public (and presumably, to potential SVR/GRU assassins from some sort of Putin unleashed version of SMERSH from the Bond movies). Something about the 'Putin killed Lesin to silence him before he could reveal Putin and RT's dark secrets to the Americans' theory is just too convenient, in the present Cold War 2.0 climate. Like Litvinenko's horrible, drawn out death from polonium poisoning leaving a radioactive trail all over London, something no sane SVR or GRU officer would want to do with all the risks of 'collateral damage' that would entail.
The bottom line is this: it's too early to tell who or what exactly killed Lesin, but the proof of life offered thus far is laughable, and there appears to be some motivation in both Washington and Moscow to keep the details of this case quiet. Whether the FBI is embarrassed that it failed to protect a defector and a potential witness to corruption in Putin's inner circles, or if Lesin was murdered by a common street criminal or unknown third party (say a certain eastern Mediterranean-based foreign intelligence service allied to the U.S. with a history of operating in brazen fashion in the United States), it's still too early to say. But the six basic theories surrounding the case we've been able to identity are:
1) Lesin was murdered by evil Putin's agents both to punish a traitor to Russia and silence him from revealing the Kremlin's dirty laundry to the FBI
2) Lesin is still alive somewhere in the FBI's witness protection program, and the Bureau is so incompetent they had him leave the U.S. under his own Russian passport thereby leaving a trace for the plucky anti-Kremlin Russian activist Alexei Navalny to find on the Department of Homeland Security's website (perhaps next they can get the U.S/UK media's favorite couch boys/amateur 'open source intelligence analysts' for all things Russian and evil, Bellingcat's Eliot Higgins and Aric Toler, to join the pile on)
3) Lesin got into an altercation with a common street mugger in D.C. and passed out before he could seek medical attention
4) Lesin was killed in connection to his reportedly reneging on multi-million dollar debts owed to a Russian oligarch with connections to Putin, or some mafia/money laundering related to the Hollywood movies produced by his adult children (Hollywood films both actually produced and those that never get made have been connected to money laundering by various Mobs for decades)
5) Lesin was killed by his American handlers, the way Alexander Litvinenko's father and brother (in contrast to his UK-based widow) say he was offed when he was no longer useful to MI6 and his British intelligence asset oligarch boss, Boris Berezovsky (this theory has been presented at the always interesting Ft. Russ translations blog, which implies a interrogation of Lesin by an unnamed U.S. government agency got out of hand and was covered up).
6) Lesin was murdered by an unknown third party, possibly a non-U.S. or Russian intelligence service, for motives presently unknown to us outsiders. Consulting with 'W' the Intelligence Insider via email, we noted that Lesin was killed on Guy Fawkes night, a 'holiday' prominently featured in the film V for Vendetta "Remember, remember the 5th of November".
However, aside from RT frequently promoting messages from 'Anonymous' delivered by spokesmen wearing Guy Fawkes masks, we cannot find any connection between Lesin's death and the Guy Fawkes/V for Vendetta or other occult themes. More details would be necessary to demonstrate any such connection. Ditto for Lesin's death occurring one day before the anniversary of the 'Red' October Revolution in Russia.
At this point the Russia Analyst isn't leaning very strongly towards any of these theories making a lot of sense, but if we had to choose, at this point we'd pick option number three. Option four could make some sense if this were the 1990s but Russian oligarchs have tended to become more civilized over the last fifteen years and have generally sought relief for getting screwed out of money in London or Cyprus courts, not through sending thugs to teach scofflaw debtors a lesson.
We would also point out the increasing desperation of official D.C. to 'get' 'something on' Putin, quite probably because Russian diplomacy and military moves in Syria have been running circles around the Obama Administration and embarrassing the incompetents at the neocon-run State Department early and often.