CONTROVERSY is brewing between the United States and Russia over the mysterious death of a one-time Kremlin heavyweight in Washington. Mikhail Lesin, Russia’s former press minister, died in the US capital in November 2015. At the time, Lesin’s family reported that he had suffered a fatal heart attack. But on March 10, Washington’s medical examiner and police department announced Lesin was killed by blunt force injuries to his head, neck and upper and lower torso. However, they refrained from calling the death a homicide.
Russia has reacted to the news by threatening to ask for international assistance if the United States does not clarify the circumstances surrounding Lesin’s demise. Moscow’s tactic of pre-emptively shifting blame to the United States by citing a lack of cooperation on Washington’s part is notable; it is almost as if the Kremlin is attempting to avoid any questions about its own possible role in Lesin’s death.
Intrigue surrounded Lesin well before the latest revelation about how he died. Lesin was one of the legendary Kremlin officials who helped Russian President Vladimir Putin consolidate power. Nicknamed “The Bulldozer,” Lesin was charged with handling the state’s takeover of Russian media assets. He set up much of the Kremlin’s modern propaganda machine, including the Russia Today channel.
In 2011, Lesin began splitting his time between Russia and the United States, where he was attempting to help his son become an actor in Hollywood. Then, in 2014, Lesin suddenly resigned his post as the head of Russian state media giant Gazprom-Media and moved to Switzerland before permanently transitioning to California. The media mogul’s abrupt flight from Russia was rumored to be caused by a fallout between him and Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s personal money manager and close friend.
Toward the end of 2014, the US Senate and Justice Department opened an investigation into corruption and money laundering charges against Lesin. The move was led by US Senator Roger Wicker, a co-sponsor of the Magnitsky Act, which aimed to punish officials deemed responsible for the 2009 prison death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The investigation also came as the United States launched sanctions against many of Putin’s closest allies and associates, including Kovalchuk.
When Lesin died, speculation erupted about the unusual details of where and when his body was found. According to reports, Lesin died at the Dupont Circle Hotel, a relatively inexpensive location for a Russian multimillionaire — if not billionaire — to stay. Questions arose of whom Lesin was meeting in the US capital that would compel him to stay under the radar.
One theory suggests Lesin was hoping to trade information with the FBI to dodge corruption and fraud charges. Someone in Lesin’s position would undoubtedly have a treasure trove of information on the Kremlin elite and, more specifically, on Kovalchuk and Putin. Insight on Putin’s personal banker would be of great interest to the United States and a serious threat to the Kremlin.
At this point, it is too soon to definitively label Lesin’s death an assassination ordered by the Kremlin. However, the case does bring to mind the death of Alexander Litvinenko, who was assassinated in London in 2006. The alleged Kremlin hit served two purposes then: to silence the former KGB agent and to send a message that Russia could operate in Western territory. Litvinenko’s death came at a time when tension between Russia and the West was rising amid a series of color revolutions in former Soviet states, Russian energy cutoffs to Europe and rumblings of NATO expansion. Tension has similarly increased in the past two years, with crises breaking out in Ukraine and Syria and Western sanctions crippling the Russian economy.
It is possible that Moscow is once again seeking to remind Washington of its long reach as it silences a defector. If true, the manner of Lesin’s death — killed by blunt force trauma in the heart of the US capital — would indicate the Kremlin has no intention of conveying its message subtly.
© 2016, STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE