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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 108. Extrajudicial Killings and Targeted Assassinations

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For authoritarian regimes, control over their citizens does not end at their geographical boundaries. Dissidents living abroad continue to pose a threat, often more so, as they operate beyond the immediate reach of state censorship and suppression. Overt killings of these individuals serve as a clear demonstration of the state's reach and resolve. The message is unequivocal: dissent will not be tolerated, regardless of where it is voiced. This projection of power is not just about silencing the individual in question; it's about setting an example for others who might dare to speak out.




The use of extrajudicial killings and targeted assassinations stands as a dark testament to the lengths governments will go to protect their interests, assert dominance, or silence opposition. The episode dives into the multifaceted and often opaque world of state-sponsored assassinations, with a particular focus on the use of proxies by Russian security services, as well as the broader implications of such actions on international norms, legal boundaries, and human rights.

What was revealed was an intricate web of covert operations, where proxies—mercenaries and other non-state actors—are employed for targeted killings. This method offers plausible deniability to states, distancing them from direct involvement in these morally and legally grey operations. However this use of proxies is not exclusive to Russia; European countries like Spain, and the UK have also been mentioned in similar contexts. The preference for proxies stems from their disposability and lack of sophistication, making them ideal tools for such clandestine activities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's involvement in overseeing these operations is a crucial aspect of this narrative. He is reportedly briefed by security services on various operations, including those that surveil American journalists. This indicates a calculated approach by the Russian leadership in targeting opposition, whether domestic or foreign. However, the document points out that certain figures, such as American ambassadors or British intelligence chiefs, have been spared, raising questions about Putin's red lines and the decision-making process behind these operations.

However, when it come to Russia nothing can ever be certain. The shifting nature of these red lines reflects the fluid dynamics of international relations. What is deemed unacceptable today might not hold the same weight tomorrow, signaling a constant reassessment of strategies based on political, economic, and military developments. The current state of the Russian economy and its war efforts, which are not going in Putin's favor, might be influencing these recalibrations.

The complexity of extrajudicial killings is further exemplified by cases such as the targeted assassination of Osama bin Laden by the United States. This operation sparked a debate about the legality and ethics of carrying out such actions without the host country's permission. The U.S. faced criticism for violating Pakistan's sovereignty, but the operation was largely supported domestically. This incident underscores the differing standards applied to various countries regarding extrajudicial killings. While the U.S. is often seen as getting a pass for its overseas operations, countries like Russia are scrutinized for similar actions.

The contrast between the methods used by the U.S. and Russia in their targeted assassinations is notable. Whilst the U.S. relies on its advanced drone technology, enabling it to conduct operations with a level of precision and technological sophistication that Russia largely lacks. In response, Russia has adopted a more traditional approach, using lower-budget proxies to achieve similar ends. This adaptation suggests a pragmatic response to the limitations in their capabilities and a strategic choice in the broader context of international espionage.

This involvement of Russian security services in surveilling and targeting individuals, as highlighted in the document, raises significant concerns about the accountability and limits of such operations. The case of a former Russian minister beaten to death in Washington, D.C., and the imprisonment of American journalists in Russia are cited as examples of the unpredictable and often opaque nature of Russian operations. These incidents not only demonstrate the far-reaching implications of extrajudicial killings but also emphasize the need for vigilance in monitoring these activities. This aspect of intelligence work, while crucial for national security, also raises questions about privacy, civil liberties, and the potential for abuse.

The motivations behind assassinations and the criteria for choosing targets also appear to be complex and often not explicitly stated. They are influenced by a range of factors, including political expediency, perceived threats, and the desire to send a message to opponents. The use of mercenaries and proxies, as mentioned, is a common tactic in these covert operations, allowing states to operate

in the shadows, away from the scrutiny of international law and public opinion.

The actions of governments in carrying out extrajudicial killings contribute to a climate of fear and instability, challenging the foundational principles of sovereignty, human rights, and due process. Targeted killings have far-reaching implications, including political, financial, and military consequences. They not only affect the immediate targets but also have a ripple effect on international relations, potentially leading to diplomatic rifts and escalating tensions. The role of the media in reporting on these assassinations is crucial in shaping public perception and understanding of the ethical, legal, and political dimensions of these operations.

The episode concludes by emphasizing the need for continued awareness and scrutiny of these operations. It acknowledges the possibility of other countries engaging in similar activities, highlighting the need for a comprehensive global response. The complex nature of extrajudicial killings, the evolving tactics employed by states, and the shifting ethical and legal landscapes demand a vigilant and informed approach to address these challenges.

Going forward, the use of proxies for assassinations by Russian security services and similar operations by other countries reflect a troubling aspect of statecraft. The willingness of governments to engage in such actions raises profound questions about the state of global politics, the sanctity of human rights, and the integrity of international law. As the world grapples with these issues, the need for transparency, accountability, and a reaffirmation of international norms becomes increasingly urgent.

Key Points:

  1. Putin's Involvement and Selective Targeting: Russian President Vladimir Putin is known to be briefed by security services about these covert operations, including surveillance of American journalists, taking a very hands-on approach.

  2. Shifting Red Lines and the Russian Context: The red lines for targeting individuals are constantly shifting both in the US, China and Russia, influenced by various factors including the state of the economy, the current leadership and the progress of wars. This fluidity indicates a reactive and adaptive approach to international espionage and targeting.

  3. Comparative Analysis with U.S. Operations: The targeted assassination of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. is mentioned as a largely positively received example of a government-sanctioned operation, highlighting the debate on the legality and ethics of such actions without host country permission. The U.S. approach, often involving advanced technology like drones, contrasts with Russia's lower-budget, proxy-based methods.

  4. Broader Implications on International Relations and Ethics: There are increasing concern surrounding the involvement of governments in extrajudicial killings, questioning the limits and accountability of such operations. It emphasizes the need to recognize the complexity and evolving nature of these actions and their impact on international relations, legal norms, and human rights. The role of the media in reporting and the varying strategies of countries in carrying out these operations are also highlighted.

  5. A Widening Field: Nations like India, Saudi Arabia and Israel are becoming increasingly brazen in their targetting operations, having seen the US and Russia operating in this space for many years and receiving little to no pushback. With the US or Russia unwilling to convict, and these other nations increasingly willing to target dissidents abroad, we are heading for a likely sharp rise in these sorts of events.



Introduction: - (00:00)

PART I: Above The Rules: - (06:39)

with Sean Mcfate

- Professor of War and Strategy at Georgetown University

- Former US Paratrooper and Private Military Contractor

- Author of "The New Rules of War"

PART II: Sudden Oligarch Death Syndrome: - (28:22)

with Andrei Soldatov

- Russian Investigative Journalist in Exile in London

- Snr Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis

- Author of "The Compatriots"

PART III: Message Received: - (52:02)

with Greg Miller

- Investigative Journalist at the Washington Post

- Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and 2018

- Specialist in the Russian Politics and Foreign Interference

Outro: - (1:02:19)



I: The New Rules of War

- By Sean McFate

II: Assassination Complex

- By Jeremy Scahill

III: All the Kremlin's Men

- By Mikhail Zyger


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This episode is dedicated to our Patreon members: Ignacio and XrysP


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