Fatal Russian Poison in London: The Report

The Litvinenko Inquiry: Report into the Death of Alexander Litvinenko

by Sir Robert Owen
Inquiry Chairman. 328 pp., January 2016; available at www.litvinenkoinquiry.org
Andrei Lugovoy in his office at the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel, Moscow, 2007. He and Dmitry Kovtun are believed to have poisoned the exiled Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
Mikhail Galustov/Redux
Andrei Lugovoy in his office at the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel, Moscow, 2007. He and Dmitry Kovtun are believed to have poisoned the exiled Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

When Sir Robert Owen’s much-anticipated report on the November 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB/FSB agent exiled in Britain, was released at London’s Gray’s Inn on the morning of January 21, most of those present probably turned immediately, as I did, to Part 9: “Who Directed the Killing?” Everyone had expected Owen to confirm that two Russian men, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, had administered fatal poison, the radioactive element polonium-210, to the forty-four-year-old Litvinenko. And indeed, the report showed that this is what happened. But a more important question was whether Russian President Vladimir Putin had a part in the murder.

Owen, a former high court judge appointed to head the inquiry by the Cameron government, concluded that “the FSB [Federal Security Service]operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr [Nikolai] Patrushev [the FSB chief at the time of the killing, who now heads Putin’s Security Council] and also by President Putin.” The word “probably” illustrates the limitations of any attempt to incriminate Putin directly in the many political murders that have taken place both within and outside Russia since he rose to power. If Putin ordered the murder of Litvinenko, and the circumstantial evidence that he did so is overwhelming, he very likely would have made his wishes known without issuing a direct order to Patrushev, who then would have communicated Putin’s wishes to his FSB subordinates in a similarly indirect manner. In short, no decisive proof has emerged and perhaps never will.

It was not until the mid-1990s, over fifty years after Stalin’s archenemy Leon Trotsky was stabbed to death in Mexico in 1940, that one of the organizers of the crime, former NKVD officer Pavel Sudoplatov, revealed that Stalin had personally ordered the killing, although his involvement was widely assumed for years. One of the main participants in the Trotsky assassination, NKVD General Naum Eitingon, was awarded the Order of Lenin in 1941. And the actual killer, Ramón Merkader, was given a Hero of the Soviet Union title in 1961, upon arriving in Moscow after serving twenty years in a Mexican jail. President Putin may have had that Kremlin tradition in mind when he conferred an award on Andrei Lugovoy “for services to the fatherland” in early March 2015, just as the British inquiry into the Litvinenko murder was producing daily evidence of Lugovoy’s direct participation in it.

It seems that Putin wants to take credit for Litvinenko’s killing, as a message to would-be defectors, while at the…

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