Russia Today, or RT, is known for its distinction as the first English language, 24-hour Russian news channel. More recently, as the Russiagate narrative has been aggressively pushed by the American media, RT has been dubbed as a mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin’s propaganda that is not to be trusted.
But as time has passed since those election results, we have discovered greater ties between the Obama administration and Russia than would have seemed possible from a camp so openly decrying Russia as anti-American and anti-Democratic. Long before the election, then-Secretary of State Clinton infamously professed to ‘reset’ relations with Russia through the pushing of a literal, big red ‘RESET’ button. Life A.E. (After Election) soured the public rhetoric of the Democratic party toward Russia, but as time progressed from November 2016, even more details emerged that would show the Obama administration was comfortable, like really comfortable dealing with Vladimir Putin and his state-owned businesses while they were in the White House.
There’s the bargain-bin sale of yellowcake uranium while overlooking Russian-backed bribery and $145 million in Russian-linked Clinton Foundation donations. Then, Dem-linked dealings with a Russian national in arranging a meeting with Don Trump, Jr. came to light. As they say, actions speak louder than words, but admittedly the anti-Russian wails coming from the left have been quite deafening.
The say-one-thing, do another approach has made it difficult to decipher what exactly is going on, who are true enemies and who are friendlier than they are letting on. Some have put forth that all ‘friendly’ dealings that have come to light could be based on some kind of blackmail, but that has yet to be proven. But it is under that dark cloud of inexplicable heating and cooling of Obama-era American-Russian relations that the death of RT founder and former Kremlin employee Mikhail Lesin becomes more suspicious than the facts of the case alone suggest. And the facts of the case are plenty suspicious all on their own.
We know that the war of intel has always been the most powerful that a nation can wage, and in the age of enhanced, documented spying techniques both domestic and abroad, the intel war is more potent than ever. So, when circumstances don’t add up to the public explanation, it’s inevitable that the curious will make certain logical leaps.
First, consider Lesin’s background in Putin’s government as the head of their massive media empire, which took some significant effort to establish. Lesin was a trained engineer who funded what would become the most powerful advertising company in Russia at the time. Obviously, that advertising acumen caught the eye of the Kremlin, as between 1999 and 2004, Lesin served as Russian press minister under Boris Yeltsin during a period when contentious negotiations over the changing media landscape were taking place. He would remain in the position during Vladimir Putin’s first presidential term. Quite simply, the Russian government was attempting to wrangle full control of the state’s television outlets, and Lesin was the point man.
At times, news of Lesin’s near-certainly state-sanctioned methods became public, and Lesin would serve as the government’s public whipping boy amidst public outcries that the state was attempting to install monopolistic modes of propaganda dissemination. Specifically, when Lesin’s visit to Russian television mogul Vladimir Gusinsky in prison resulted in the sale of Gusinsky’s station to the government (with the government setting the price) in exchange for his freedom, Lesin took the blame for the poor optics.
‘He had just put his signature to a deal guaranteeing Vladimir Gusinsky, the media mogul and Kremlin foe, immunity from prosecution in return for agreement to surrender control of his media empire.
News of the arrangement sparked uproar and the Kremlin had to go through the motions of upbraiding the media minister. Not that he would have to resign, of course, after flagrantly interfering with the judicial process and deploying the law as a political instrument.’ (The Guardian)
Though Lesin suffered no professional loss, the manner in which he was reportedly rebuked for the nation to see would be humiliating to anybody, and could have understandably garnered resentment toward his bosses.
‘Like an errant schoolboy caught passing smutty messages to the girls at the next desks, Mr Lesin was ordered to stand up before the rest of the cabinet class while the head teacher and prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, issued his rebuke.’ (Guardian)
Lesin continued to rise, even serving as a senior presidential advisor during Putin’s second term. During that term, in 2005, Lesin started Russia Today, the 24-hour, multilingual news channel that would eventually come to be better known simply as RT.
Eventually, Lesin would oversee the complete consolidation of Russian television media into government hands, and was named head of Gazprom Media, one of the largest state media holding companies, in 2013. The length with which he remained as the apparent head of state media dealings and the role he played in granting Vladimir Putin the power of tele-transmitted persuasion means that, in no uncertain terms, Mikhail Lesin was a relatively powerful man who surely had some, if not lots of, knowledge that could be valuable to those looking to gain intel on the Russian state.
Upon returning to the presidency for his third term in 2012, Vladimir Putin would strongly urge the Russian elite to sever financial and personal ties to the West, as investment outside of Russia sent the wrong message amid the conflict in Ukraine. Also, lives abroad opened up Russian elites to potential coercion from the United States, as Lesin’s own case illustrated in 2014. That was a problem for Lesin, whose California-based real estate acquisition company Dastel was started in 2011. He would also go on to incorporate two more businesses, HFC Holdings and Dastel Holdings, the former under his daughter’s name.
Having invested several properties in Los Angeles with extended family living in them, including his children Anton and Ekaterina, Lesin clearly had his feet planted in both the East and the West.
‘In the summer of 2014, a few months after the annexation of Crimea, Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, wrote a letter to the Justice Department calling for a money-laundering and corruption probe into Lesin’s offshore company, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands, as well as the property portfolio that Lesin’s immediate family owns in Los Angeles.
The prospect of having these properties seized had a sobering effect on Lesin, and he insisted that those mansions belonged not to him but to his children. “My children don’t have any connection whatsoever to my work. My daughter is 35 years old. My son is 31. They are adults, living independent lives.” But they were still fair game in the sanctions war. In December, the U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed that it had referred Senator Wicker’s complaint to the FBI and the Justice Department for investigation. A few days later, Lesin resigned from his post at Gazprom-Media.’ (Time)
This official departure from a role in the Russian government, along with the well-known leverage against Lesin’s $28 million in collective Los Angeles-based properties, opened the man up for suspicion by Vladimir Putin and Russian intelligence agencies. The fact that his assets weren’t ever seized could not have made Russian intelligence feel any better about Lesin’s loyalty. Neither would accounts that he was preparing to move full-time to America.
‘The trappings of a comfortable exile were already in place. He had created a corporation in Los Angeles to buy expensive homes. His son and daughter had lived there. Mr. Lesin, 57, traveled regularly to the United States with a new girlfriend, who gave birth in September.
“He finished his business in Russia, if you will, and was looking for another life,” said Sergei V. Aleksashenko, a former deputy of Russia’s central bank who moved to the United States after taking part in protests against Mr. Putin.’ (NYT)
The likelihood of Russian suspicion of Lesin’s strengthened American ties and ability to avoid investigation, along with Lesin’s long-standing role in the high circles of Russian government, make theories about his death being a potential homicide seem more plausible.
The fact that Lesin happened to be in Washington, D.C. at the time of his death in November 2015 is even more fodder for theorists. According to the official FBI account, Lesin didn’t show up to a dinner event he was expected to attend on November 3rd. Then, in the ‘early morning hours’ of November 4th, after ‘consuming excessive amounts of alcohol’, Lesin abruptly moved from his Four Seasons hotel into the Dupont Circle Hotel.
Sounds like the actions of a man who could be a bit paranoid, no?
The next evening, a security guard reportedly came to Lesin’s room and attempted to help a stumblingly drunk Lesin to bed, to no avail. On the morning of November 5th, Lesin was found dead by a maid, with the coroner ruling the cause as ‘blunt force trauma’.
“How it is possible he did not call a doctor, the police, anyone?” Mr. Vasilyev, a friend of Lesin’s said of the security guard. “I do not understand.” (NYT)
Yet, despite the public now having access to a report that unequivocally shows Lesin had evidence of blunt force trauma to his head, neck, torso, arms, and legs (sounds like a potentially slow, painful death), news sources including RT issued initial reports that Lesin, by their accounts a heavy smoker and drinker, had died of a heart attack. It took more than four months for American authorities to confirm that, in fact, it was blunt force trauma and not a heart attack that was the cause of death.
The New York Times has reported that the cause for the delay in the official coroner’s report, which typically takes no more than 90 days, was due to extensive toxicological scans in search of poisons. This would also lend credence to the idea that American authorities saw Lesin as a potential target of Russian agents, as several high-profile Russian oligarchs have died from foreign poisons.
The potential that Lesin had become an FBI informant was apparently talked about openly in Russian and other intelligence circles, yet there were claims in the wake of his death that Russians believed his demise could have been faked by American authorities. He had become a father yet again only weeks before his death, and it seems Russia would have plausible reason to want Lesin silenced, if only to send a message. But the American office of the chief medical examiner’s four month-plus silence despite obvious signs of foul play seems odd. They never explained why it took so long to reach their conclusion or what prompted the specific timing of the announcement.
But, we must remember the rules. Never confirm an informant, especially one of such potential consequence to international intel-gathering. Secrecy must not be read into too far when attempting to speak to who may have been behind Lesin’s demise.
Who knows, maybe he really did just fall drunkenly, repeatedly, resulting in all that trauma and his own death. Those who don’t subscribe to any malevolent theory point out that a) Lesin was known to have harmed himself while drunk in the past and b) he was in Moscow only two weeks prior, a seemingly easier access point for any potential Russian-executed assassination.
While some have concluded, without any direct evidence, that some level of dirt on American politicians has been collected and used to Russia’s advantage (to what extent is the real question), it appears that Lesin could have been helping facilitate the flow of intel in the other direction. As the narrative goes, the Russians weren’t willing to allow this dirt to be transmitted so easily, and thus you have one former head of Russian media found dead in his Washington, D.C. hotel room under suspicious circumstances.
Naturally, the FBI would not disclose whether or not they were in fact working with somebody in Lesin’s position to collect intel on, presumably, those in the Russian government or business world. It would be a bad look for them in the world of wink-wink diplomacy, even considering that, if Lesin was in fact done in by his own nation, it would indicate Russian intelligence was well-aware of any collaboration.
Hypothetically, of course.
These are the politics of intelligence and dirt-gathering on the national level, illogical as they may seem when examined through a purely rational lens. If Mikhail Lesin didn’t in fact die of repeated drunken falls, we have to consider the potential that he was snitching, and – with respect for the dead – that the old saying still applies: snitches get stitches.
Hypothetically, of course.