I knew as I dialled his number that Anton Surikov was a member of Russian military intelligence, that he had commanded detachments of Georgian rebels, rubbed shoulders with Islamic terrorists and organised secret gatherings between Chechen separatists and the Kremlin’s agents. I knew he was a shareholder of a shadowy arms consultancy and that the French secret service kept tabs on him.
But as the dial tone hummed I had no idea he would meet me or that in less than two months time he would be found dead. In very suspicious circumstances.
It was a calm voice. He spoke very slowly. “Meet me at seven o’clock under the Victory Arch besides the memorial park to the fallen from the Great Patriotic War.”
Surikov was well known to western journalists and widely respected in Russia as an outstanding expert in military affairs and the treacherous politics of the Caucasus.
I wasn’t late. In fact I was early and nervous.
“You’re waiting for me.”
Surikov had a heavy handshake, an unattended crew-cut and clad in a white string vest complete with a cigarette dripping from his mouth, was the perfect picture of a Slavic thug.
“Follow me. I really like this cafe.”
Two months later rumours began to circulate that he had been liquidated. Rebellious Chechen mouthpieces claimed he had been poisoned in the same manner that the rogue agent Alexander Litvinenko had been radioactively terminated in London. Some speculated that rivalries within his ‘consultancy’ might have taken him down. But nobody seemed to think Surikov died naturally.
He was forty-eight and as he settled down in front of me in one of Russia’s knock-off versions of Starbucks, he looked pretty healthy if ever so slightly distant. Surikov had the stare of the old solider. Like the eyes of a drug addict, his pupils had seen more than I could possibly imagine.
“To tell you the truth…all Russian politicians are bandits from St. Petersburg.”
He had ordered an extremely creamy cake, from which he carefully began to shave off the chocolate sauce with a teaspoon. He was soon really enjoying it. After concentrated eating he began what was almost certainly his last major analysis on the contours of Russian politics for the western media.
Surikov paused from the cake and lit up another cigarette, exhaling and explaining the latest line-up of power.
“The most powerful man in Russia today is Putin. He is like a Tsar and his business interest is Gazprom. Putin wants integration with the West but on his own terms. He knows that because of what he has done he is personally inacceptable to the West. That is why he created Medvedev. He uses Medvedev to say things that he cannot himself for fear of destabilising his relationship with the hardliners. They want Russia to be European — a second Japan, linked to the West, but not part of it.”
Surikov suddenly then offered me the rest of his cake. I politely refused.
“The second most powerful man in Russia is Igor Sechin, whose power base comes from the intelligence and military networks and his business interest in Rosneft. Sechin takes money from China and is the main China lobbyist in the government. He views Russians as Asians and wants an alliance with Beijing and a tightly controlled one party state. ”
Surikov then ordered a Coca-Cola.
“The third most powerful man in this country is Alexei Kudrin. He is in complete control of Russian finances. The fourth most powerful man in this country is Ramzan Kadyrov who controls Chechnya. He has his own army, networks and relies on the webs of the Chechen diaspora and his relationship with Putin. Afterwards I suppose you would find Medvedev and his liberal associates.”
Surikov smoked heavily and began to analyse the soft underbelly of Putin’s Empire — its Caucasian marches.
“Putin’s connection with Kadyrov is purely personal — the connection of a Tsar to his vassal. Stability relies upon this alone in the North Caucasus. If it were broken, mass violence would begin again. The Kremlin is not in complete control of the security forces in the area. Some of the murders are done by rogue elements that seek to undermine Kadyrov. They hate him because he has gained something close to independence by stealth. You must not think of the security forces as uniform. There are clans, agendas and bandits among them. The FSB clans are faking some attacks for divide and rule policies.”
He pushed his cigarettes in my direction and paid full attention to the remains of the cake. Surikov seemed in a candid mood.
“They say you are an active member of Russian military intelligence. Is this true?”
He looked me straight in the eye. There was no more cake.
“When asked I deny it. If not asked I don’t mention it.”
Without prompting he continued his analysis. I heard a certain urgency in his voice.
“The reason there was no war in Georgia this summer is that Vice-President Biden’s speech showed US resolve and it frightened the Kremlin. However the greatest threat is the fact that Putin is not completely in control of the agents, clans and factions of the army and the secret services. There are those who are staging attacks to undermine the government or those that stage them in order to benefit from chaos or send a message to the authorities not to interfere in their businesses. These can be anything from drugs, to arms or human trafficking. This is a real problem in Chechnya, less so in South Ossetia and to a far lesser extent in the Crimea. They are bandits but they are not responsible for the Georgian War in 2008. Remember that was the personal revenge of Mr. Putin against Mr. Saakashvili.”
Surikov tried to persuade me to order a cake. I refused. He seemed genuinely surprised.
“The cakes here are really good.”
Eventually we settled on another round of coffees. It was getting dark outside.
“Security in Eurasia depends on how the struggle unfolds within the Kremlin. If Igor Sechin and his allies succeed in directing Russia into a Chinese-allied one party state then war is a possibility in Crimea and the Ukraine. If those that want integration with the West on their own terms win then it will not happen. I am an old fashioned European-style 1970s Social-Democrat. I don’t want Russia to be like China.”
Slightly baffled at the idea of Surikov hoisting himself into the company of Michael Foot and Francois Mitterrand, I pushed him back towards politics.
“Why do you think that, and are there many who share your opinions in military intelligence?” I probed.
“Of course there are.”
Then something like an emotion passed over an expressionless face.
“I believe this because I believe that Russians are….Europeans.”
He left me his packet of cigarettes, paid the bill and strolled off very quickly.
The Russian press remained almost universally silent at the news of the death of Anton Surikov, perhaps frightened to mention such a man in a country where the Kremlin keeps such a tight grip on the media.
Days before the death of Surikov the luxury express-train between Moscow and St. Petersburg was struck by an explosion. 39 People died and 95 were murdered. A neo-Nazi and an Islamist group that regularly claim responsibility for attacks they couldn’t possibly have carried out both claimed to be the killers. From his Caucasian palace Ramzan Kadyrov expressed his doubt over the direct of involvement of the Islamist group that claimed it was behind the attack.
The express-train was the one that Putin’s boys rode to St. Petersburg for the weekend.
It looked like a personal attack against ‘the Tsar’ after an autumn that seen a surprisingly good run for the ‘Europeans’ in the Kremlin. Ex-military and secret service officials occupied now only around half of the posts in the administration, down from a high of over two thirds a few years earlier.
Perhaps if he was still alive Anton Surikov might have been able to tell me who had really done it.