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A New Putin Conspiracy Theory That Won’t Die: Mikhail Lesin

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by Gordon M. Hahn

Recently, the Washington DC police and FBI determined that the death of Mikhail Lesin in a Washington DC hotel in November 2015 was due to heavy drinking and injuries to the head suffered from a fall. Nevertheless, certain elements continue to weave conspiracy theories surrounding his demise as they do anything involving Russia, which they perceive as the greatest threat to U.S. national security. For example, conservative commentator Glenn Beck (with whom I agree on much, except for Russia) is reporting that Lesin’s death did not occur and his death was staged and is now under a witness protection plan spilling the beans on Putin’s ‘unique and ubiquitous propaganda machine’ (as if the US does not have one) or that Lesin’s death was not accidental and he was killed on orders from (who else?) Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Beck’s conspiratologist ‘Russia expert’ proposes the truth is likely the former. He pretends to have “confirmed” special information that Lesin’s passport exited the US 40 days after Lesin was found dead, suggesting that this is proof his death was faked. However, the evidence and conclusion of the ‘expert’ come from the website of Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalnyi. A tip: Be careful not to take what you read not just on on Russian (or any other) government websites but on Russian opposition sites as well (for an example of loony opposition ‘analysis’ see Andrei Illarionov’s ‘analysis’ in Gordon M. Hahn, “The Myth of an Imminent Anti-Putin Coup: Rusological Fail or Stratcomm?,” GordonHahn.comRussian and Eurasian Politics, 11 November 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/11/the-myth-of-an-imminent-anti-putin-coup-rusological-fail-or-stratcomm/). Beck’s ‘expert’ is also suspicious of the fact that Lesin suddenly appeared in the U.S. In fact, the very immigration log the ‘expert’ got from Navalnyi’s reporting shows Lesin entering and exiting the U.S. numerous times since 2012.

Navalnyi is much more careful. He has updated his first report, noting that there very possibly is a logical, simple explanation for the fact that the entry/exit logs of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs Border Protection (CBP) registers Lesin departing from the U.S. 40 days after his death (https://navalny.com/p/4764/).

For example, DHS’s CBP reports: “(I)f you entered the United States via a land border port of entry or were provided a paper Form I-94 at an air or seaport and returned home with your Form I-94 (white) or, if you arrived by land under the Visa Waiver Program, Form I-94W (green) Departure Record in your passport, it is possible that your departure was not recorded properly” (https://help.cbp.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/752).

The NADSA Association of International Educators notes in giving members tips on international travel and I-94 forms the following: “Some individuals have reported finding departure data in their travel history that correspond with a round-trip return flight date, even if they never used that portion of their round-trip ticket to depart the United States. Like arrival data, departure data is also transmitted to CBP systems by air and sea carriers through electronic passenger manifests. If an airline does not edit the manifest to remove individuals who did not get on a flight, the manifest data will be recorded as a departure in the CBP NIIS system that feeds the I-94 travel history list” (www.nafsa.org/Professional_Resources/Browse_by_Interest/International_Students_and_Scholars/Electronic_I-94_Record_Retrieval_Tips/).

Moreover, Lesin’s DHS entry-departure log itself is replete with gaps and mistakes. He has several trips with entry dates into the U.S. but with no corresponding departure date. One line indicates that his departure was “unknown.” Not only is this more proof that the U.S. immigration system is more akin to Swiss cheese or a sieve rather than Fort Knox, but it indicates that Lesin’s exit was likely a pro forma entry in the log based on his scheduled departure date written on his I-94 form and his roundtrip ticket inventory.

Of course, it is possible Lesin’s death was the result of foul play. There is plenty of that going around nowadays, especially in Russia, but not all of it comes from the regime and not all of that comes from Putin. However, to date there is no proof that Lesin died from anything but the Washington police’s report of heavy drinking and a fall. It is more likely that the conspiracy theories circulating around Lesin’s death are along the lines of Putin killed Litvinenko, Putin killed Politkovskaya, Putin killed Nemtsov, and Putin killed lawyer Stanislav Markelov and opposition newspaper Novaya gazeta journalist Anastasiya Barburova Margelov and the Putin regime protects Russian neofascists. In fact, Berezovskii or Chechens are more likely to have killed Litvinenko, Politkovskaya, and/or Nemtsov, though Putin may not be able and/or willing to ensure the true murderers are found. A neofascist couple was arrested, convicted and in April 2011 sentenced to long prison terms for the 2009 murder of Markelov and Barburova and the regime has been cracking down on neofascists over the last decade or so (www.rferl.org/a/russian_nationalists_convicted_of_killing_lawyer_reporter/16797379.html).


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; Contributing Expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the Making of the Ukrainian Crisis and ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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