Published at Left Foot Forward.
The British inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko concluded on Thursday, making official what everyone already knew: the Russian intelligence services, “probably” at the direct order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, murdered Litvinenko in London in November 2006.
Welcome as it is to have this on the record and to have Litvinenko’s killers named for all the world to see, it now leaves questions, primarily:
Will similar forensic scrutiny be brought to bear on several other odd instances of political and other crime in Russia?
And what does the British government intend to do now that the Kremlin is carrying out assassinations on its territory again?
Litvinenko began as an informant for the Soviet KGB in 1986 before becoming an officer in 1988. He continued to work in intelligence after the Soviet Empire collapsed, working his way up in the Federal Security Service (FSB), the premier internal intelligence service of the Russian Federation and the primary successor to the KGB.
In 1998, Litvinenko publicly reported high-level corruption at the FSB, an early warning of the fact that the distinction between State, spies, and organised crime in Russia was being lost.
Under government threats—”If something won’t get him to prison, we’ll open another case and another one and another one,” a State prosecutor told Litvinenko’s wife after one of his arrests—Litvinenko defected to Britain in 2000.
From 2003 onwards, Litvinenko was employed by Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, MI6, to help unravel Russian organised crime, especially in Europe.
Indeed, the timing of Litvinenko’s assassination seems to have been spurred by the fact that he was about to testify about Russian State criminality in Spain, where mafiosos connected to Anatoly Sobchak, the Saint Petersburg mayor in the 1990s, for whom Putin was an aide, worked closely.
Whatever the reasons for the decision, Litvinenko was never in any doubt about what had happened to him.
Litvinenko spent his final days helping British security identify his killers. Litvinenko was “an ideal witness—good with descriptions, heights, details,” writes Luke Harding, whose forthcoming book unpacks this most elaborate assassination. “Litvinenko had … perfected his observation skills. It was part of his basic training.”
It meant the suspects’ list in the administration of the killing was short and definitive, and the suspects’ list for the authority on which these men operated was even shorter: “I have been poisoned by the Russian Special Services on Putin’s order,” Litvinenko told British police.
Now Litvinenko’s surmises have been confirmed.
“The FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by [Nikolai] Patrushev, then-head of the FSB, and also by President Putin,” British judge Robert Owen concluded. “There is a strong probability that when [Andrei] Lugovoy poisoned Mr. Litvinenko, he did so under the direction of the FSB. I have further concluded that [Dmitry] Kovtun was also acting under FSB direction.”
Lugovoy is now a deputy in the Russian Duma (parliament) and Kovtun is a former agent of the KGB and now a businessman. These two men administered the polonium-210 to Litvinenko, putting it in a pot of tea from which Litvinenko poured himself a cup in their presence at the Pine Bar in Mayfair on November 1, 2006, exactly six years after Litvinenko had arrived in Britain.
Litvinenko had made many shocking allegations against the Kremlin during his time in Britain; that Moscow felt the need to kill him suggests he might have been on to something.
The primary incident is the 1999 bombing of the apartment buildings in Moscow that Putin used as a trigger to re-invade Chechnya, framing the separatist struggle under the rubric of the war on terrorism, and cementing his dictatorship under the same cover. Litvinenko accused the Kremlin of orchestrating those bombings to enable Putin to stabilise and legitimise his regime.
Litvinenko is not the only person to accuse Moscow of being behind the apartment bombings. Four journalists, most notably Anna Politkovskaya, whose investigations of the incident had led or were leading them in the same direction, have been murdered, and the prosecutions have been distinctly laggard.
For Britain, the major question is whether the government will be able to pursue a long-term strategy with regards to the presence of Russian influence in the country. Throwing out known and suspected Russian spies under official cover would be a start.
Beginning an investigation, as the United States now has, into Russian influence-peddling with political parties and ostensible activist groups—what we used to call subversion—is an obvious next stage.
Perhaps even more significant is Russian money in the City. London has proven too willing to look the other way and bend the rule of law for a short-term influx of cash, but as Peter Pomerantsev has pointed out, this is self-defeating: what makes London an attractive destination for foreign capital is its secure legal framework. If it transpires that legal protections for investors can be removed by a well-placed bribe then Britain ceases to be a valued investment opportunity.