Since the day that Donald Trump was elected president, seven high-level Russian officials have died as well as a high-raking NATO officer, and at least three others have been charged with treason along with a fourth who works outside the purview of the Russian government. Some of these deaths seem innocuous, like Alexander Kadakin—their ambassador to India—who died of a “brief illness” that is confirmed by multiple independent reports. Others seem much less so. A perfect example of the lifecycle of the conflicting reports surrounding these deaths comes in the form of the recently released autopsy of Mikhail Lesin.
Lesin is a former aide to Vladimir Putin, and he died in November 2015. At the time, Russian media claimed his death was due to a heart attack, yet the medical examination that was just released determined that the cause of death was actually due to blunt force trauma to the head…so yeah, definitely an understandable mix-up by the Kremlin over someone whose mind was no doubt in possession of highly sensitive material.
This section will be the least certain of the five due to the fact that we are heavily relying on Russia’s media to provide much of the information—and given the example of Lesin, they clearly cannot be trusted as a primary source. Most news like that doesn’t make it out of Russia, and the main reason we are enlightened about the circumstances surrounding Lesin’s death is because it occurred in our nation’s capital. This also helps demonstrate that when we do see a flurry of activity from Russian state media, it’s instructive of a larger message that the Kremlin is trying to send. It was certainly no accident that we heard from a litany of Russian sources about the arrests of alleged traitors to their cause.
Cyber Officials Charged with Treason
In early December, FSB agents walked into a meeting, put a bag over Sergei Mikhailov’s head, and dragged him out of the room. This sensationalist image was confirmed by Sergei Markov—a member of the Public Chamber in the Russian parliament and adviser to the Kremlin—as he told The Daily Beast:
“In early December, FSB Colonel Sergei Mikhailov, who was responsible for cyberwars and cyberattacks… was arrested by the FSB; yes, with a bag over his head.”
Mikhailov’s deputy Dmitry Dokuchayev was accused of treason for passing confidential information to the CIA as well. Ruslan Stoyanov, a manager at Russian cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab, is the third known person arrested and charged with treason in this short time span.
Initial reports out of Russian media tied Mikhailov to a group of hackers in Ukraine and Thailand called Shaltay Boltay, which means Humpty Dumpty. The group is reportedly affiliated with Anonymous, who released damaging documents on high-level Russians in 2014, and the Kremlin alleges that the arrests are related to this act, as Markov told The Daily Beast that Mikhailov:
“definitely controlled Shaltay Boltay,” which “cooperated with the Ukrainian SBU [security service], which is the same as working for the CIA; he worked with them, which is obviously treason.”
The fourth person arrested is journalist Vladimir Anikeev, who is reportedly a key figure in Shaltay Boltay. Ivan Pavlov, a defense lawyer specializing in treason cases, told The Daily Beast that there are “more than four suspects in this case” and he denies the Kremlin’s narrative that this is connected to the 2014 hack. Novaya Gazeta claims that as of January 31st, there are six charged with treason. Sadly, despite the heroic efforts of Pavlov’s during his career taking on the Kremlin, this may be all we ever find out about this saga, as the main propaganda arm of the Russian government—RT—highlighted in their story on all this:
The treason charges also mean any trial will not be public due to its sensitive nature.
In other words, it was Krivov’s job to make sure US intelligence agencies didn’t have ears in the building. — Ali Watkins’ BuzzFeed report.
When police found Krivov’s motionless body on the floor of the Russian consulate at 7 am on Election Day, one of the first things they noticed was an open wound on his head. Initial reports were that he fell to his death from the roof, but Russian consular staff told the BBC that he died of a heart attack. It is difficult to ascertain exactly what Krivov’s role in the consulate was due to the shadowy nature of Russian communiqué, but working off of legal documents from Zakonbase, BuzzFeed was able to learn about some of Krivov’s responsibilities as a consular duty commander:
The duty commander would also have had access to the consulate’s crypto-card—the top secret codebreaker used to encrypt and decrypt messages transmitted between the consulate and other Russian channels. It was likely Krivov who helped transmit cables in and out of the heavily guarded building.
Watkins dove into public records to find any trace of Krivov, and it turns out that he was a ghost even before his spirit left the Earth:
Despite being described as a Manhattan resident by the NYPD, Krivov is a phantom in public records…when BuzzFeed News went to Krivov’s address, listed in the NYPD’s files, at 11 E. 90th St., it wasn’t a residence. It’s a Smithsonian-owned office building for its neighboring Cooper Hewitt design museum. It’s located a block behind the Russian Consulate, which is at 9 E. 91st St. One of the consulate’s public entrances is 11 E. 91st St. Asked about the discrepancy, the NYPD insisted that 11 E. 90th St. was the address they had been given for Krivov, apparently by Russian consular officials.
The New York Medical Examiner’s office claimed that the cause of death was natural, but the NYPD closed the case without specifying a cause of death, and in a curious move, denied BuzzFeed’s request for the incident report, as Michael Morisy, the founder of MuckRock told BuzzFeed:
“The incident report, after an investigation is closed, typically that is releasable. It’s really weird that they would categorically state that was rejected…incident reports are not broadly exempt from public records law.”
There is almost no other information publicly available pertaining to Krivov’s death aside from BuzzFeed’s one article. The Russian state version of Breitbart, Sputnik, claims that “violent death was ruled out as a probable cause” and makes no mention of Krivov’s head wound.
Michael Best filed a Freedom of Information request citing the multitude of news reports about his death while providing a link to the BuzzFeed article as one such example, and his application came back denied because “A website link in itself does not satisfy the proof of death requirement.” At best, his submission was not properly reviewed, and at worst, well…let’s not go there without any evidence. On March 14th of this year, Best provided a copy of Krivov’s obituary to satisfy this requirement that he already satisfied, and it remains to be seen as to whether this will uncover any additional details on this strange case that the authorities have quickly rushed off the public’s radar.
On December 16th, the auditor general of NATO was found dead in the back of his car 62 miles away from where he lived and 87 miles away from his work in Luxembourg, and according to the prosecutor, Vincent Macq, he left a suicide note:
“We cannot go into details on the content of the note but we can say that it is linked to some investments [which had] gone wrong that Mr. Chandelon had done with some friends. The family was not aware of these investments.”
What raises questions about this death is not the giant flashing red light that is the death of a high-ranking NATO official who was about to audit the agency for terror financing, but the fact that Chandelon had three guns registered to him, yet the one he allegedly committed suicide with was not one of these three. Even more bizarrely, local reports say it was found in his glovebox.
Another report asserts that this gun was actually found in his right hand, yet Chandelon is left handed. Either way, the gun that he did not own which ended his life was found in an unlikely spot. Chandelon’s family rejects the conclusion that this was a suicide, and unfortunately, few reports exist outside the prosecutor’s assertion and his family’s subsequent denial to corroborate any side of this tale. The Daily Express also claims that “it has been reported” that Chandelon had complained of getting strange telephone calls before he died and “felt threatened.”
Three days after Chandelon’s death, on December 19th, Russia’s chief adviser to the Latin American department at the ministry was found dead in his apartment with a bullet wound to the head. Ren TV, a federal TV network in Russia was the first to report the death, although they did not identify Polshikov as the victim, simply saying:
The head of one of the departments of the Russian Foreign Ministry found shot dead in Moscow, according to the source of journalists of REN TV. Officially, this information is not confirmed in the department.
The only other details they provide come from an unnamed source who said that empty shells were found and that his wife was in the apartment. Later reports named Polshikov as the unnamed diplomat, and even asserted that unconfirmed reports claim that he had left the Foreign Ministry altogether. Casting further confusion on this saga, Metro contacted the Russian government, and a Kremlin official told them:
”We don’t know any official with this name. We haven’t seen anything about this in the Russian news either, and so we have no statement to make about it.”
Polshikov’s death came just hours after the on-camera assassination in an art gallery of Andrei Karlov—Russia’s ambassador to Turkey—by Mevlut Mert Altintas, a member of the Ankara riot police.
Altintas claimed his act was payback for Russia's actions in Aleppo before pulling the trigger, and so far, no one has been able to tie him to any organized groups. It would be irresponsible to speculate on his motivations outside of his own words, which demonstrate exactly zero connection to Russia outside retribution for their atrocities in Syria. But I will say that if the Kremlin wanted Karlov dead, an unaffiliated, disaffected, ideological, foreign, young man is pretty much the archetype of who they would select to carry out a clandestine assasination. Karlov's death isn't very suspicious outside the fact that it occurred in rapid succession to Polshikov's, which is shrouded in mystery.
On December 26th, Erovinkin's body was discovered by his driver in the back seat of a company Lexus. Erovinkin was a former general in the KGB and last served as the chief of staff to President Igor Sechin of Rosneft—a Russian state-owned oil company. For what it's worth, Sechin is a central figure in the infamous dossier put together by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, and subsequently leaked by BuzzFeed. Rosneft Press Secretary Mikhail Leontiev told The Moscow Times that Erovinkin had problems with his heart. It's quite the coincidence that so many high-level Russian officials died all due to their heart problems in such a short time span.
Life.ru, a notorious Kremlin mouthpiece, initially ran with the headline “Sechin's Chief of Staff killed in Moscow” before quietly changing it to “The Chief of Staff of Rosneft's President found dead in Moscow.” Most reports said that Erovinkin was found in the back seat of his car, however there are some that claim he was found in the driver's seat. Some local media have also asserted that he died as a result of foul play, and not of heart-problems—as Rosneft's Press Secretary alleged.
Christo Grozev, an expert on Russian security at the Bulgarian think-tank Risk Management Lab, wrote that “IF Steele's direct source was truthful, it is extremely highly likely that the ultimate source had been Erovinkin.”
Not much is known about the death of the head of the head of the consular department at Russia's embassy in Greece. Malanin was found dead on the bedroom floor of his Russian embassy-owned apartment on January 9th. Police said that the door was locked from the inside, that there had been no signs of a break-in, and no foul play was initially suspected as the police official said “at first sight, we are talking about natural causes.” There is nothing obviously suspicious about this one, save for the fact that other deaths of similarly high-ranking officials were also due to “natural causes,” and there has been enough contradiction surrounding those circumstances to cast doubt on any related claims.
On February 20th, the New York Post reported that Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, became sick outside the Russian Embassy on East 67th Street at around 9:30am with—you guessed it—heart problems. No reports indicate foul play, but what happened after his death is what raises suspicions. An autopsy was conducted, the initial tests seemed like it was a heart attack, but they were ruled inconclusive, and further testing has been ordered. We will never know what determination they come to, as Julie Bolcer—a spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner's office—said it will keep the cause of death a secret because “Ambassador Churkin's diplomatic immunity survives his death.”
MSNBC's Chris Hayes asked his followers on Twitter if this was standard operating procedure, and a reporter for the New York Times reached out with an anecdote from his reporting.
A former State Department official also questioned this practice.
Coming to any firm conclusion about these deaths is impossible given how little we know about them, but when you put all of them in a row and stack up the few facts that we do know, the picture becomes quite odd—especially in light of the charges of treason to at least four (and likely more) cyber-security officers. Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague told the New York Times:
“It was always pretty obvious that they [U.S. intelligence community] had more than just the computer evidence,” Mr. Galeotti said. “The arrests are a big deal.”
It’s also not a stretch to imagine a wide-scale mole hunt given that American intelligence services have come to the unanimous conclusion that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election, and it’s highly likely that they could come to that firm conclusion based off of human intelligence, as the story in the Times continued:
But one current and one former United States official, speaking about the classified recruitments on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that human resources in Russia did play a crucial role in proving who was responsible for the hacking. The former official said the agencies were initially reluctant to disclose their certainty about the Russian role for fear of setting off a mole hunt in Moscow.
Further adding to the drama around all this, just yesterday it was reported that Nikolai Gorokhov, the lawyer representing murdered Russian political activist Sergei Magnitsk, was hospitalized after falling four floors from his apartment in Moscow. His spokesman, William Browder, said he was “thrown” out of his building, while Russian media alleges he fell while trying to lift a jacuzzi into his apartment. Gorokhov was due to testify in New York City on May 15th in USA v. Prevezon, the largest tax fraud case in Russian history centering around a Cyprus-based real estate company. The lawyer who was supposed to be representing the United States in that trial? Recently fired attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara.
Russia is a nation of laws insofar as those laws resemble whatever agenda the Kremlin is currently pursuing. The infamous dossier compiled by a former British secret agent must have some semblance of truth within it—otherwise why would three separate intelligence agencies include it in briefings to two presidents? It’s certain that the dossier is not 100% fact but it is equally as clear that it is not 100% fiction either, as CNN reported that some of it has been confirmed by U.S. intelligence officials.
Anyone who has read the dossier can see that it reflects poorly on the Kremlin, as it is defined by various factions competing to rein in or expand this operation to influence our election, and given that high-level people like Rosneft president Igor Sechin are explicitly named in the dossier, one can’t help but wonder how his Chief of Staff who reportedly met with one of Donald Trump’s advisors wound up dead just a few weeks before this widely known document leaked to the general public. There are far more questions than answers surrounding these deaths and arrests, and that would still be the case even if we had any concrete answers at all.
Part four tomorrow: The FISA story that riled Donald Trump up on a fateful Saturday morning.
Part two: How Donald Trump’s Businesses are Financed by Russian Cash
Part one: How Donald Trump’s Own Words Connect him to Russia
Jacob Weindling is Paste’s business and media editor, as well as a staff writer for politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.