Judging from Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Moscow on September 12, the British government has decided to cave in to the Russians in the long-running dispute over the November 2006 murder in London of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. The victim, who was highly critical of Vladimir Putin and had been given asylum in Britain in 2000, died an agonizing death at a North London hospital on November 23, three weeks after being poisoned with polonium 210—a rare and highly lethal radioactive substance. As a result of Russia’s unwillingness to cooperate with its investigation of the crime, Britain ended intelligence sharing with Moscow and introduced new visa restrictions on Russian businessmen trying to go to the UK. But Cameron’s meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin this week indicates that Britain is reassessing its Moscow strategy—and by extension, its view of the Russian leadership.
At the heart of the Litvinenko dispute has been the British authorities’ attempt to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, an ex-KGB bodyguard, as the prime suspect in the murder. Somehow—and this raises serious questions about the possible involvement of members of the Russian government—Lugovoi and his business partner, former military intelligence officer Dmitry Kovtun, obtained polonium 210 and brought it to London on two separate trips in October-November 2006, when they met with Litvinenko. Traces of polonium were later discovered in the hotels and restaurants they visited, as well as on a British Airways plane that Lugovoi traveled on and in the apartment of Kovtun’s ex-wife, whom he stayed with in Hamburg on his way to London.
If all had gone according to plan, Litvinenko would have died without anyone knowing the cause. But the job was botched—the killers mishandled the polonium and failed to give Litvinenko a dose that would have killed him immediately—thus creating a huge diplomatic furor. Britain demanded the extradition of Lugovoi for trial in the UK; the Russian government refused, insisting that the Russian constitution protects citizens from extradition. Britain responded by breaking off intelligence ties and introducing the visa restrictions—a cooling of relations between the countries that has lasted until now.
The mere fact that Cameron accepted Medvedev’s invitation to Russia (the first such visit since Tony Blair went to St. Petersburg in July 2006) suggested conciliation. Then, in a speech on September 12 at Moscow State University, Cameron referred only vaguely to the Kremlin’s refusal to cooperate in the Litvinenko investigation. All he said about the case was:
Our approach is simple and principled. When a crime is committed, that is a matter for the courts. It is their job to examine the evidence impartially and to determine innocence or guilt. The accused has a right to a fair trial. The victim and their family have a right to justice. It is the job of governments to help courts to do their work and that will continue to be our approach.
But, as Cameron is doubtless aware, Russia has a vastly different system of justice from that of Britain, or any country in the West. On any case in which the Kremlin might have an interest, the possibility of a fair trial—where evidence is examined impartially and criminals are made accountable for their crimes—is often non-existent. In December 2007, Lugovoi, the main suspect in the Litvinenko murder, ran successfully to become a deputy in the Russian Duma representing the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and he has become a sort of media hero. Just last week, on the eve of Cameron’s visit, he gave an interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph, in which he brazenly challenged Cameron to meet with him in Moscow.
In glossing over the extradition dispute, Cameron gave the message that he does not consider it worth sacrificing business and political relations with Russia to pursue the matter any further. Later, at a joint press conference with Medvedev, Cameron responded defensively when asked how he expected to “park” the issue of Litvinenko without being accused of putting trade above human rights:
We are not downplaying it in any way. We have our own position. But I don’t think that means we should freeze the entire relationship – we need to build a relationship in our mutual interest. Both of us want to see progress. We are not parking the issue, just realizing there is an arrangement that hasn’t changed.
While the British have made clear that relations between their secret services and the Russian counterintelligence service (the FSB) are still frozen, they have made a significant concession to the Russians. Russia has lifted its ban on imports of British beef, and in exchange Britain has agreed to expedite the process of granting visas to Russian businessmen. This alone will relieve much of the pressure on the Kremlin to be more cooperative in the investigation.
Understandably, the British want to facilitate better trade relations with Russia, a high-potential market for their exports and for investment in oil, gas and infrastructure. But President Medvedev’s weak performance at the annual Global Policy Forum in Yaroslavl last week may offer another reason for the change in strategy. In the past, Medvedev has impressed western analysts with his pledges to defend the rule of law and pursue reforms. And with the March 2012 elections approaching, his supporters were expecting him to use the Yaroslavl meeting to present himself as a strong candidate for re-election. Instead, he gave one of the most lackluster speeches of his political career, suggesting that he does not intend to compete with Putin.
According to this reading, instead of pinning hopes on Medvedev, the “liberal,” Western governments may be facing up to the possibility that there will be a hard-liner in the Kremlin for a long time to come. Hence the decision by the British to be realistic and acknowledge that they can have better trade relations with Russia if they stop challenging the Kremlin on human rights issues. (Much to the disappointment of human rights advocates, neither Mikhail Khodorkovsky nor the late Sergei Magnitsky—who died needlessly in prison while awaiting trial—were mentioned by Cameron during his visit.)
But the new British strategy may be short-sighted, since the Kremlin could interpret it to mean that vendettas against its enemies can be carried out with impunity in the West. Indeed, there is an irony here given that Cameron in his speech at Moscow University stressed the importance of cooperating with Russia to fight the “global terrorist threat.” The murder of Litvinenko was an attack on a British citizen on British soil, which endangered many lives. Reportedly more than 700 individuals tested positively for polonium in the aftermath of the killing. (According to two American scientists: “In its purest form, the amount of polonium-210 that would fit on the tip of a pen (0.5 mm3), if properly dispersed, could kill 500 persons.)
Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, and their young son, Tolik, were exposed to especially high levels of radiation (Litvinenko was ill at home before he went into the hospital, emitting radiation from his body); and their exposure remains a health concern. Last March in London, Marina Litvinenko described to me the harrowing experience of watching her husband die in agony and then being forced to evacuate her home for more than a year, leaving all belongings behind.
She told me she had great faith in the efforts of Scotland Yard to get to the bottom of her husband’s murder. She, along with many others, must be deeply discouraged by Cameron’s “business as usual” message to the Kremlin.