Amy Knight

Putin and Political Murder

Air Date: September 23, 2017

Russia and KGB scholar Amy Knight talks about her new book "Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder."


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When I worried to you in the audience that the American experiment was possibly on a tyrannical course, reminiscent of Netflix’s House of Cards, one of my guests assured me, the President still doesn’t’ kill people. This, of course, is not the moral bar to set in a free society. We ought to demand more from our elected officials than avoidance of criminality. When I think of that comment again, the President still doesn’t kill people, I wonder how accurate it is. Maybe not intentionally, but isn’t the President complicit in war mongering in his far reaching detonation of intolerance and political violence. What we can say with confidence is that the president’s firestorms of tweets, have thankfully not evolved into retribution against political opponents and dissidents, that has resulted specifically in killings.

But that’s not the case in Erdogan’s Turkey, or most prominently in Putin’s Russia, where assassinations, poisonings, and barbarism, are a regular occurrence. Today we learn about what happens when an authoritarian executive goes unchecked with a leading Russia and KGB scholar, Dr. Amy Knight, author of the new book, “Orders To Kill, the Putin Regime and Political Murder” out by St. Martin’s Books, in which she expertly chronicles the presumed crimes against humanity that Putin has committed, and the impunity with which he escapes the legal system, unscathed, Amy, for now, and more popular than ever, now.

KNIGHT: Yes. Absolutely, uh, his ratings are, uh, about 85 percent, in the…

HEFFNER: Are those independently verified though?

KNIGHT: Well, uh, it’s, that’s kind of difficult to say. The whole poling method, uh, in Russia is a little bit complicated. But basically, uh, they do reflect, I believe, a popular support for uh, uh, President Putin. Mainly it’s because the media is largely controlled by the state, and so therefore, Russian people are fed a constant stream of propaganda that glorifies Putin and that appeals to their sense of uh, nationalism and patriotism.

KNIGHT: Given what you establish in this book, as a track record of alleged homicide, murder, against journalists and political opponents, does Putin have anything to fear, right now.

KNIGHT: Well, yes and no. I think that uh, in the longer term, support is eroding. Uh, support for Putin is eroding. We had uh, quite a few demonstrations, street protests, just this spring. And um, a surprising number of young people came out, protesting against Putin. So they’re motivated, the protests are motivated primarily by, I think, economic concerns, but also, there’s been an increasing amount of publicity about the widespread corruption at the very top in the Kremlin, even including, uh, Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister. Uh, he’s, he’s implicated in really vast corruption. So I think that uh, gradually, people are beginning to ask themselves why it is that their standards of living are declining, which they are.

The Russian economy is still way behind what it was a few years ago, why their standards of living are declining, and yet the people at the top, the oligarchs, the top government officials have Dachas, they go skiing in fancy places, they, I mean they lead the lifestyle of very, very wealthy men. So, that discrepancy I think, uh, is a potentially uh, disruptive force.

HEFFNER: So, inequity is the major disconnect. You also mentioned political corruption. What is more alarming, do you think, to the Russian citizen right now, the economic situation, the political corruption, or do you think this string, over a decade plus, two decades of, uh, killings and a chilling effect are beginning to resonate? Is it all of the above?

KNIGHT: Well, I would say that the killings and the murders that I talk about in, in my book, uh, have had a chilling effect on the Democratic opposition, and on the, uh, independent, Russian independent journalists. So, it’s uh, yes. It’s, it’s very frightening to these people, and, and they are all aware, including Alexei Navalny who has uh, uh, declared himself a, a potential candidate for the presidency, this is something that really casts a shadow over, uh, opposition movements, but as for the general population, I’m, I’m sorry to say that no, they don’t really know very much about these murders. They may know that they’ve happened but it’s too far removed. And their concerns are definitely the economic concerns and, and the fact that, while this goes hand in hand, not only is the economy in decline, but the infrastructure of the economy is, is really crumbling. So, and that, by the way, was what helped uh, the demise of the Soviet Union. So, this is something that uh, the broad segment of the population is really concerned about.

HEFFNER: I want to ask you, to what you attribute the tolerance of these murders, but you really spelled it out just now which is a lack of awareness in the first place in a state-media dominated culture. But you dedicate this book, you were telling me, just now, to the widow of one of the targets, one of those who were assassinated under this regime. Can you tell us who he was, and what your relationship is with his widow.

KNIGHT: Alexander Litvinenko was, had, uh, he worked for both the KGB and then later, the KGB’s successor organization, the FSB. And he was involved in uh, well, anti-corruption, uh, cases, and quite a few, uh, cases that involved high politics and the mafia when he worked uh, uh, for the FSB. So, Litvinenko finally, he decided at one point, that he was being uncomfortable, he was uncomfortable with uh, the modus operandi of, of the FSB. And he and some colleagues were actually asked to assassinate Boris Berezovsky who was a well known oligarch. And uh, this was at a time in the 90’s when there were just all sorts of uh, mafia figures and shootings. It was a pretty violent, uh, dog eat dog world. Anyway, Litvinenko was not, not happy about this, and he told Berezovsky about it. And then he and uh, some of his colleagues actually had a televised press conference in 1998, when they revealed this plot. The head of the FSB, and Mr. Putin was not happy about this. And, so Litvinenko was imprisoned twice. And then finally, he decided to defect, because he knew that his life was in danger. So, he defected with his wife, Marina, and his young son, Anatoly, and they ended up in London.

HEFFNER: Keep telling the story.

KNIGHT: Well, so, Litvinenko uh, underwent a sea change. Instead of working for the security organs, he became their greatest enemy. And he had a particular animosity towards, uh, Vladimir Putin. So, he basically set out, after he moved to London in 2000, he set out to just, uh, campaign against Putin, and expose everything about him, his dictatorial methods, his corruption, the role that uh, Putin and the FSB might or might not have had in the 1999 September apartment bombings in Russia. So uh, Litvinenko became a, uh, I would say one of Putin’s main detractors from abroad. And he also became very close with Boris Berezovsky, who also was forced to flee Russia for his own safety, and also ended up in, in London. So, the tow of them, surrounded by a coterie of, uh, emigres from Georgie, from Russia itself, uh, et cetera, they formed this kind of clique that basically was devoted to undermining Putin, and hopefully, uh, deposing him.

HEFFNER: But that did not happen.

KNIGHT: No, it did not happen.

HEFFNER: Ultimately, they met their demise, as a lot of defectors and now political opponents do. What, what I am wondering, from your perspective, it seems as though the defectors have only had the effect of further emboldening Putin. Why have we not seen the level of prosecution, or evidence to substantiate it in the court of public opinion so that there is some international body that could then intervene.

KNIGHT: Well, in the case of Litvinenko specifically, it, uh, as you, as you know, he was, it was pretty much proven by a British high court that conducted an inquiry into the Litvinenko murder in November, 2006, it was uh, it was established that the killers were two Russian men, one of whom, well, both of whom were contracted by the FSB. And we know for a fact that they actually administered poison…

HEFFNER: Poison.

KNIGHT: To Litvinenko, polonium, a very deadly poison, I might add. They were, they went back to Russia, these two men, Lugovoi and Kovtun. And Lugovoi became a deputy to the Duma. He is, uh, very popular. Everybody in Russia knows that he and Kovtun actually murdered Litvinenko, and people have pretty much praised them for that, because they considered Litvinenko a traitor.

HEFFNER: These incidents have only further emboldened Putin, and not provided any formula for how to take him down.

KNIGHT: Well, uh, I think that, definitely, I’ll mentioned the most recent example would be Boris Nemtsov, a leading Democratic uh, opposition politician who was gunned down just outside Kremlin walls in February 2015. Now, Nemtsov, uh, it’s very interesting, he was uh, quite a popular politician, very charismatic. And as I point out in my book, he was kind of the complete opposite of Putin. He was tall, and swarthy, very good looking, uh, a ladies man and, and completely charming. He was also very courageous, extremely courageous. And he became one of Putin’s uh, greatest critics. Now, I think, in my opinion how, why Nemtsov was singled out. I don’t think that, uh, at the time, he was really a political threat to Putin, in the sense that he might, you know, uh, contest the presidency or something like that in the future. No. I, uh, Nemtsov didn’t have that broad, broad political support that would have been a threat. But, Nemtsov went to Washington, and he talked about Putin. He uh, tried to get US lawmakers to increase the sanctions against Russian officials who were corrupt and who violated human rights.

Now this was, again, we’re talking about treasonous behavior in terms of, it’s, it’s, uh, uh, maybe it’s OK to voice your opposition to uh, Putin on a Russian television program, or to organize some people on the streets, but going to Washington and really trying to get, uh, US lawmakers to uh, increase sanctions against Russian, uh, leaders, or Russian officials, that was not good.

HEFFNER: Well, that tested the extent of his dissent that was allowable, and off with his head. Are there potential security organizations, international bodies that, in a third Putin term, would be, have some jurisdiction, uh, have some potential to bring justice? Your book is justice for, for victims, but beyond the, the truthful and accurate chronicling of the murders, what is the recourse right now.
KNIGHT: You know I, I’m, uh, I regret to say that there’s very little recourse. I mean we’ve got the European Court for Human Rights and um, you know, Russian dissidents, oppositionists have, have appealed to the European Court, but they don’t really have much sway,

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

KNIGHT: As to what’s going on in Russia. And you know a, a good example of this would be the murder of Paul, uh, Klebnikov in, in Moscow, in July 2004. His family, his wife Mussa and his brother Peter have sought, ever since, for years, to really get to the bottom of the case, and to find out who ordered the killing of Paul Klebnikov who was a, a journalist, I should add. Um, he was the editor of Russia’ s Forbes magazine. And uh, they’ve, they, the Russia, Russian authorities, the prosecutors and investigators, so and and so forth, have come up with the people who actually pulled the trigger and, and shot Paul Klebnikov, but they’ve never been able to find out who orchestrated the murder. And this has been hugely frustrating for his family. They’ve appealed to Putin directly, and Putin promised at one point that he would solve the case. They, they are never solved. Uh, there’s a typical pattern. They find, usually find the people who’ve actually carried out the murders, but they’re never able to find the people who ordered the murders, the “zakaschiki” as we say in Russia.

HEFFNER: They are proud of the way in which they are able to undertake these assignments without declaration before or after.

KNIGHT: Well, yes, and now it’s interesting, I, I talk in my book about Ramzan Kadyrov, who is the president of Chechnya. And they are, several Chechens have been implicated in, in murders. This is kind of the standard thing, blame it on the Chechens. But in, in several cases it’s, this is true. Kadyrov himself has been implicated, particularly in the Nemtsov murder, because he hated Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov was very critical of Kadyrov who, by the way is, is a dictator in his own republic, Chechnya, a ruthless, ruthless man. And uh, so, interestingly enough, he actually has been implicated, but never to the point of, of being tried. And uh, there’s a complicated relationship between Putin and uh Kadyrov, because Putin and his fellow Kremlin leaders rely on Kadyrov to maintain stability in Chechnya which was, for a long time, uh, really a hotbed of radicalism and separatism. But in exchange they have to give Kadyrov carte blanche to rule the republic the way he wants to. And in, uh, uh, as part of this agreement, it seems that Kadyrov has, at times served as, organized the hitmen in some of these murders.

HEFFNER: As you think of America today, not as an antagonist, at least in the executive branch of Russia, in fact, thanking Russia for ejecting American diplomats, whether it was sarcastic or not we don’t know, President Trump’s true relationship and we don’t know his true financial relationship with Russia. But, how do you think, first of all what, what do you think will ultimately be revealed with respect to Trump’s connection to Russia.

KNIGHT: This is very difficult to say, but I think that, uh, probably we’re going to find out that these connections ran pretty deep. I don’t know that we’re going to trace it directly to Trump or, or Trumps’ children, but I think, just judging from such cases as that of Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, and some of the other people, Michael Flynn, they at best were very injudicious and very incautious with their dealings with Russia. They didn’t seem to know who, uh, these people were that they were meeting in, uh, various times in 2016. So, I do think more is going to come out, and I think
that eventually, whether it leads to actual collusion that Trump himself knew about, I think it’s going to raise, continue to raise questions about the judgment of him and the people that surround him, regarding Russia.

HEFFNER: And what about this idea that he is, as Hilary Clinton said, a puppet, uh, that he has financial stake in Russia, that his business, and now his presidency is dependent upon, in some ways, normalizing relations with Russia, and in some ways tolerating the political murders.

KNIGHT: I’m not sure, uh, uh, I wouldn’t want to venture, uh, speculation on the extent of which…

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

KNIGHT: Uh, Trump has some sort of financial, uh, concerns that, that would lead him to be so favorable to President Putin.

HEFFNER: But as has been pointed out, he could not have responded to the ejection of the American diplomats in any way that was more prostituting himself to Putin.

KNIGHT: Oh yes, I, I totally agree with that. I, I think it’s, it’s just absolutely disgraceful how he has pandered, how President Trump has pandered to Vladimir…

HEFFNER: And you wonder why, right? If, if, why do you think? Id, if…

KNIGHT: Well, um, I don’t know if you, um, there was this report by Christopher Steele…




KNIGHT: Former MI6, uh, in, agent. And he basically did, in this dossier that he wrote, uh, he did tie together a lot of Trump people with the Russians, and efforts to influence the campaign. Now…

HEFFNER: And it didn’t have the substantiation, so it was discredited.

KNIGHT: It was…

HEFFNER: The American media…

KNIGHT: Discredited, but not completely. And I think we’re, we’re still waiting to see if some of those, uh, if, if some of the, uh, things that Steele said in this very, very damning dossier, if even half of it, uh, is true, then this could, this could harm President Trump. Now, that’s one possibility, that he’s, he’s worried that the Russians might, uh, in some way blackmail him.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

KNIGHT: But I think, uh, the other thing is, is that he and President Putin have kind of a natural affinity towards each other. It’s, it’s very strange. Uh, uh, President Trump has said more than once that he admires Putin because he’s a strong leader who puts his country first. And Trump doesn’t seem to look beyond that, he basically uh, I think genuinely respects Vladimir Putin, to the point where he’s willing to overlook the fact that Putin commits murders of his own people.

KNIGHT: How do you think the discovery of Trump’s collusion would further or not further Putin’s goals?
KNIGHT: I do not think that Vladimir Putin is anxious to have any collusion between Russians and Trump, uh, officials. Uh, I, I think that that would go counter to anything that Putin and his colleagues in the Kremlin, Kremlin would wish.

HEFFNER: Has he responded to that accusation in the same way that he does to the political murders? You saw him interviewed at a hockey rink and he is toying with the reports about the collusion. Is that the way he also responds to the insinuation that he involved in any of these assassinations?

KNIGHT: Well, uh, Vladimir Putin hasn’t really been confronted by members of his own media and, and others a, about these assassinations. Every once in a while, something comes up, uh, as far as Trump is concerned, I, I really do believe that it is not in Russia’s interest to have the, the collusion or the possible collusion between the Russians and Trump brought out.

HEFFNER: We know Putin is power hungry. Why doesn’t he take his chips off the table for this third election? Because he believes that he’s invincible? What further does he want to personally gain by being president or prime minister, or having a role in, in leadership? What, what are his considerations besides power? Or is that the only one?

KNIGHT: I think that there, there are two considerations. One is that, yes, Vladimir Putin is addicted to power and in a, in a very serious way, and he has his own self-image. It’s very much like Stalin never wanting to, to give up the reins of, of power in the Kremlin. But also, if Vladimir Putin stepped down and there was a reshuffle at the top, then he would, Putin would no longer be in the situation where he could control all of the information about the extensive corruption, including his own, so, he would be making himself vulnerable, because he could never trust the next leadership in the Kremlin to make sure that his corrupt activities would not, and, and murders, will not be revealed.

HEFFNER: Hmm. Well, as we face our own frightening realities here in the US, I think that you enhance our perspective and, and give us so much depth on Putin. Thank you Amy.

KNIGHT: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of idea. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook, @OpenMindTV, for updates on future programing.