The Convenient Death of Vitaly Churkin

On February 27, 2014, Russian troops in unmarked green uniforms, the so-called “green men” or “polite people”, as the Russians called them, entered Crimea. Participants in the invasion received medals on which the date of the “return” of the Crimea to the Russian Federation was given as February 20, 2014-March 18, 2014. As a result of the Russian invasion, Crimea became “Russian”, while in two regions of Eastern Ukraine, Donbass and Lugansk, currently controlled by Russian-controlled war lords, the so-called “hybrid war” is still going on.

On March 4, 2014, at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, delivered a notarized copy of a letter written by Viktor Yanukovych, at the time pro-Putin Ukrainian President, in which he appealed to the Russian leadership to invade Ukraine to save his regime. At that time, Yanukovych, who on February 25th agreed to resign and later refused to do so, fled to Russia with the help of Russian secret services . The letter, dated March 1, 2014, stated (my translation from Russian):

As the legally elected President of Ukraine, I declare: the events at the Maidan, the illegal seizure of power in Kiev led to Ukraine being on the verge of civil war. There is chaos and anarchy in the country. The life and safety of people, especially in the southeast [of the country] and in the Crimea, is under threat. Under the influence of Western countries, open terror and violence are carried out. People are persecuted on political and linguistic grounds. In this connection, I appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin with a request to use the armed forces of the Russian Federation to restore law, peace, law and order, stability, and protection of the Ukrainian population.

At the emergency Council meeting, Churkin furiously defended the then ongoing Russian military invasion into Ukraine. When the US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said that she does not see a threat to the Russian and Russian-speaking population in Crimea, Churkin immediately attacked her: “It seems that Mrs. Power draws all the information from the American television. Of course, if we took information from the American television, everything was fine: there was a wave of democracy [in Ukraine], and then Yanukovych fled, and the democrats came to Power without any violence.” According to Churkin, in reality a wave of violence swept across the Western and Central parts of Ukraine, which he claimed was well known to American diplomats.

This was Churkin’s typical style of answering the American ambassador. Later, in December 2016, he snapped at Power: “The speech by the US representative is particularly strange to me; she gave her speech as if she was Mother Teresa herself. Please, remember which country you represent. Please, remember the track record of your country.” Strangely, after his death Mrs. Power called Churkin “my friend.”

Putin himself mentioned Yanukovych’s letter at his press conference on March 4, 2014, the same day when Churkin made his statement at the UN: “First, on the legitimacy [of the Russian military invasion]. We have a direct appeal from the acting and legitimate Ukrainian President Yanukovych to use the armed forces to protect the life, liberty and health of Ukrainian citizens.”

Later, in November 2015, Putin also confirmed that he personally commanded operations on the Crimea annexation and on Yanukovych’s rescue:

[On the night of February 22-23, 2014] I invited the leaders of our special services and of the Defense Ministry to the Kremlin, and charged them with the task of saving the life of the Ukrainian President [Yanukovych]. He would have been simply killed. We deployed large-caliber machine guns there to act quickly. We made preparations to pick him up in Donetsk by the ways of land, sea, and from the air.

A year later, in November 2016, at a press conference, Yanukovych confirmed that he had written that 2014 letter to Putin, explaining that it was “an emotional decision.” The Russian Senator Andrei Klishas stated that in 2014 Yanukovych sent the same appeal to the Russian Federation Council (Russian Senate).

Recently, in January 2017, the UN Secretariat officially provided the Ukrainian government with a copy of the letter after the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office started collecting materials for indicting Yanukovych of treason. On January 19, Yanukovych confirmed again that he, in fact, wrote that letter.

A few days later, on February 20, 2017, Churkin, veteran of Soviet and then Russian diplomacy, suddenly died in his New York office the day before his 65 birthday. The Russian official version was that his death was caused by a heart attack. Some Russian and Ukrainian journalists speculated that Churkin, possibly, died after an emotional telephone conversation with President Putin about Yanukovych’s letter, because of the emotional pressure in connection with the letter.

Immediately after Churkin’s death Yanukovych completely changed his story regarding the letter. On February 22, 2017, at a press conference, he denied that he wrote the 2014 letter. Now he claimed the following:

I did not ask for [Russian] troops to invade Ukraine, this was not so, there was no letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin about that. It was not a letter, but a plea to stop gangs of illegally invading bandits who, not being subordinated to any authority, began killing people in the Donbass Region. That was my goal. It may have been emotional, but I was looking for ways to protect people.

Yanukovych also stated: “I did not betray my [Ukrainian] people, I tried to protect my people, and did this within my [Presidential] power.” Yanukovych told journalists that he lived in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, but it is widely known that he spends msot of his time in a big dacha (a country house) in Sochi.

In the meantime, American officials made a bizarre statement about Churkin’s death. On February 24, the U.S. Department of State asked the New York City authorities in writing “to not reveal the autopsy results, because Churkin’s diplomatic immunity survives his death.” One can only wonder about how diplomatic immunity can survive a diplomat’s death. And on March 10, 2017, AP reported that “the New York City medical examiner’s office will not release the cause and manner of death for Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations.”

A complete denial by Russian officials of any knowledge of Yanukovych’s 2014 letter followed. At first, on March 7, the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement in a letter to the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office claiming that neither Putin’s Administration, nor the Russian Federation Council, ever received Yanukovych’s 2014 appeal for “the use of the Armed Forces at the Ukrainian territory.” The President’s Administration is a unique apparatus in Russia that “is ensuring the activities of the President of the Russian Federation and exercising control over the execution of decisions of the President”, something like Putin’s personal government.

On March 14, 2017, at a briefing in Kiev, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko announced the filing of pre-trial investigation materials in a charge of treason against ex-President Viktor Yanukovych. According to Lutsenko, the fugitive Ukrainian ex-President, who is currently hiding in Russia, in writing asked the Kremlin to commit aggression against Ukraine. Lutsenko added that more than 50 witnesses, photos, video materials, material evidence and documents proving Yanukovych’s guilt have been presented during the pre-trial investigation. Yanukovych’s lawyers denied the existence of Yanukovych’s letter and claimed that their client’s rights were violated during the pre-trial investigation.

On March 16, 2017, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also repeated that in 2014, the Kremlin did not receive a letter from Yanukovych requesting an invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine: “No letter was officially received by the President’s Administration, no such letter was registered in the Administration.”

The next day Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, repeated the denial in her usual unhinged manner:

Unfortunately, black misinformation has blossomed again with its poisonous colors in the global media space. […]

Churkin’s death continues to be discussed in the Russian mass media. On March 11, 2017, Aleksey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo Moskvy radio station, discussed the circumstances of Churkin’s death on the air. This radio station is considered to be independent from the government, but Venediktov has a reputation as a person who is used from time to time by the officials for leaking information. Venediktov said raised some questions:

Was there a second autopsy done in the Russian Federation, after Vitaly Churkin’s body was transported here?

Another question: Why do we refer to an official in the [New York] mayor’s office? Why does the [Russian] Foreign Ministry not officially state the reasons for Churkin’s death? […]

Why do I not believe in the sad story of a heart attack and ask questions about it? I recall that when Mikhail Lesin died in the city of Washington, there were also official reports about a heart attack. As an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) showed, it turned out that he died of numerous injuries, apparently, inflicted on himself, which is still unclear, or during a fight.

In the last paragraph Venediktov refers to the strange death of Mikhail Lesin on November 5, 2015, in Washington in a Dupont Circle hotel. For a long time, from 1999 to 2009, he was an influential player in Putin’s circle with the nickname “Bulldozer.” From 2011-2013, Lesin lived in Beverly Hills, California, and created a corporation to buy expensive homes. Then he was back to Russia, where he headed the Gazprom-Media, the state controlled media giant. In December 2014, he resigned and according to the press, planned to continue business in the US.

On March 10, 2016, the Washington D.C. medical examiner declared the results of the autopsy: Lesin died of blunt-force injuries to his head, and not of a heart attack, as the Russian mass media had announced. On October 28, 2016, the D.C. chief medical examiner announced it’s final finding that Lesin “sustained the injuries that resulted in his death while alone in his hotel room.” However, all circumstances of the death are so suspicious that it’s hard to believe that Lesin was not killed.

Recently there was an even more mysterious death of a Russian citizen in New York. On November 8, 2016, on Election Day, Sergei Kirov, a 63-year-old employee of the Russian Consulate, was found outside the Russian Consulate. He was unconscious and unresponsive, with head and facial wounds. He died soon after. The consulate said in a statement posted on Facebook: “An American physician that was admitted to the Consulate’s building clearly ruled out signs of a violent death.” Russian consular staff told the BBC that Lesin had died of “a heart attack”  This death remains a mystery.

Andrei Piontkovsky, a noted political analyst who recently fled Russia fearing persecution, suggests suggests that Putin is planning a major shift in his Ukrainian policy:

The Kremlin again sharply changes its tactics.

After all the talk about pushing the cancerous tumor of Lugandoniya [this is Piontkovsky’s term for the Donbass and Lugansk regions] into the political body of Ukraine is discontinued. […] By no means is this a question of preparing for Lugandoniya’s annexation. […] Putin does not need pieces of Ukraine, he needs all of Ukraine. Moscow is preparing to “strengthen” the political leadership of Lugandoniya, declare it a legitimate Ukraine, while everything outside of it [i.e., the current Ukraine] will be rebellious territory […]

Shocked and unbalanced by the terrible failure of the operation “Our Trump”, Vladimir Tavrichesky [Vladimir Crimean, this is Piontkovsky’ sarcastic nickname for Putin] is preparing a new large-scale adventure.

According to Piontkovsky, Putin’s order on February 18, 2017 to consider legitimate the documents issued by the war lords of the Donbass and Lugansk Region, are indicators of the Kremlin’s new plans to announce “Lugandoniya” to be the only legitimate Ukraine.

At the moment, it’s hard to say if Piontkovsky is correct in his prediction but it’s clear that the denial of the Yanukovych letter signals a new effort to whitewash his actions and Russia’s involvement and perhaps a new effort to resolve the Ukrainian situation.