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 same time publicly denying culpability through the usual distortion of facts by the Kremlin. The state-controlled media echo the claims of Lugovoy and Kovtun—that Litvinenko was killed by Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, then exiled in London, in collusion with the British secret services. Not surprisingly, over 50 percent of those polled by Russia’s Levada Center recently rejected the conclusions of the Litvinenko Inquiry. As for those who accept that the Russian state was responsible for the murder, Russian journalist Alexander Baunov observed: “Public opinion in Russia is the complete opposite of that in Britain. The view here is that these guys [Lugovoy and Kovtun] are heroes because they punished a traitor.”
Owen’s exhaustive, 328-page report will do little to change the views of Russians, but it may help confirm to the West the criminal nature of the Putin regime. The inquiry began in January 2015 and lasted, with interruptions, until the end of July, with hearing transcripts and documentary evidence posted daily on the inquiry website. British authorities had started an inquest into the Litvinenko case immediately after his death on November 23, 2006, but it was adjourned pending a police investigation. As a result of that criminal investigation, which continues, warrants were issued in 2007, during Tony Blair’s final year in office, for the arrest of Lugovoy and Kovtun, but the Russian government refused to extradite them. Then for almost five years the British authorities took no visible action, despite the persistent efforts of Litvinenko’s widow, Marina.
Although the inquest was resumed in 2011, its effectiveness was hampered by the fact that, by law, classified government information could not be accepted as evidence. Owen, appointed to head the inquest in 2012, requested that the British government open a wider inquiry, which allowed him to consider secret evidence in closed session. After considerable resistance, apparently because of concerns about jeopardizing relations with Russia, the Home Office finally approved the inquiry in July 2014.
The case against Lugovoy and Kovtun, as stated in the Owen report and in the inquiry transcripts and evidence, is straightforward. They made two attempts to poison Litvinenko, each documented by the trail they left of the radioactive polonium. The first was on October 16, 2006, when Lugovoy and Kovtun, after arriving in London from Moscow, met with Litvinenko at the offices of a British security firm, Erinys, and apparently put polonium in his tea. Litvinenko became violently ill that night, but survived, thinking he had suffered food poisoning.
Litvinenko received a fatal dose on November 1, when he met with Lugovoy and Kovtun at the Pine Bar in London’s Millennium Hotel and sipped tea from a pot that was on the table when he arrived. He deteriorated dramatically but did not die for over three weeks. This was something his assassins had not counted on. An appropriate dose would kill quickly and without a trace. What the two men apparently did not consider was that Litvinenko, according to all who knew him, was exceptionally healthy. He exercised daily and did not smoke or drink alcohol. He stayed alive long enough for the hospital to call in experts who could use sophisticated testing that in the end, just before his agonizing death, enabled them to determine that he had been poisoned with polonium-210.
Where did it come from? Polonium-210 is a rare, highly expensive substance manufactured commercially at only one nuclear facility in the world, Avangard in Russia. But since nuclear reactors elsewhere are capable of producing polonium-210, Owen could conclude only that the Avangard nuclear facility “was a possible source of the polonium 210…the matter cannot be put any stronger than that.” He did, however, emphasize that nuclear reactors are generally under state control. This means that it is highly unlikely that Lugovoy and Kovtun were able to obtain the polonium on the private market. The clear implication of the report is that the source was the Russian state.
Lugovoy was well suited to carry out the murder because he had ties to the FSB and had also known Litvinenko, Berezovsky, and others in the Russian émigré community in London. Lugovoy began his career in the KGB’s Ninth Directorate, responsible for protecting high members of the Soviet leadership. After the USSR’s collapse in 1991, that agency was transformed into a separate organization called, since 1996, the Federal Protective Service. Lugovoy performed so well that he was charged at one point with guarding Boris Yeltsin’s finance minister, Yegor Gaidar, and later Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. He then set up a private firm and in 1996 became head of security for ORT, a major Russian television network, in which Berezovsky, a principal member of Yeltsin’s entourage, was a major shareholder. This was where Lugovoy first met Litvinenko, who was serving in the FSB’s counterterrorism division and using his position to provide security for Berezovsky.
Litvinenko later ran afoul of the FSB, then headed by Putin, when he accused his employers at a televised press conference in 1998 of enlisting him to kill Berezovsky. In 2000 Berezovsky himself became openly embroiled in a conflict with Putin, who had just been elected Russian president, and sought exile in London. Litvinenko gained asylum there later that year. Together in exile, Litvinenko and Berezovsky formed a close alliance in their mutual hatred of the Putin regime and devoted themselves to campaigning against the Kremlin.
Litvinenko became increasingly vociferous in his denunciations of Putin. In 2002 he published in Russian, along with a coauthor, Blowing Up Russia, which later appeared in English, and alleged that the FSB and Putin were behind the horrific apartment bombings in Russia in September 1999 that killed almost three hundred people. In that same year Litvinenko released a book in Russian called The Lubyanka Criminal Group, which linked Putin directly to organized crime. Shortly before his death, Litvinenko also wrote an article for the Chechen Press accusing Putin of being a pedophile.
Beginning in 2004, Lugovoy started traveling to London and meeting both Litvinenko and Berezovsky. He was invited to Berezovsky’s lavish sixtieth birthday party, held in January 2006 at the historic Blenheim Palace, rented for the occasion, and sat at the same table with Litvinenko and his wife. Just months before Litvinenko was poisoned, Berezovsky hired Lugovoy to provide security for his daughter in St. Petersburg. And on the day of Litvinenko’s fatal poisoning Berezovsky obtained tickets to a soccer match for Lugovoy and the family he brought with him to London.
Litvinenko and Lugovoy, meanwhile, had been collaborating to sell their insiders’ knowledge of the Kremlin to British consulting firms. Litvinenko—and Berezovsky as well—clearly knew that Lugovoy had connections in FSB circles. These connections were what made him a valuable source of information. Lugovoy later claimed that Litvinenko tried to persuade him to become an informer for MI6, which had hired Litvinenko as a consultant in 2004 for £2,000 a month. Neither Berezovsky nor Litvinenko seems to have worried that Lugovoy might be a threat. So far was we know—and much remains undisclosed—they did not suspect that Lugovoy’s contact with them was a cover for a much more important job.
Lugovoy was a shrewd operator, but his decision to enlist the help of his boyhood friend Dmitry Kovtun in carrying out this secret mission was a mistake. According to the testimony from his former wives, Kovtun was an unreliable character. After serving with Soviet troops in Eastern Europe, he deserted in 1992 and obtained asylum in West Germany with his new wife. They moved to Hamburg, but the marriage ended, his wife told investigators, because of his “escalating drunkenness.” Kovtun remarried and lived in Hamburg until 2003, but that union also failed. His second wife testified that Kovtun never had a steady job. He earned money by working occasionally as a dishwasher and garbage collector, but spent much of his time drinking. His only aim was to become a porn star. It is not clear what Kovtun did after he returned to Moscow in 2003, but at some point he reconnected with Lugovoy.
When he arrived in Hamburg on October 28, 2006, for a brief visit, Kovtun was broke and had to ask his former wife’s boyfriend for a credit card to book his flight to London. Kovtun had polonium with him at that point, because later forensic tests showed that he had, no doubt unintentionally, contaminated his ex-wife’s apartment. After the failed attempt on Litvinenko in mid-October he apparently did not want to administer the poison himself. So Kovtun tried unsuccessfully upon arriving in London on the day of the murder to enlist an old Hamburg acquaintance there to do the job. (Later testimony from that friend helped to incriminate Kovtun.) Almost blind in one eye (according to one of his ex-wives), Kovtun apparently measured out polonium for Litvinenko in his bathroom at the Millennium Hotel and poured the rest down the drain. Forensic tests later revealed a high level of polonium contamination in the trap below the drain opening. (Lugovoy and Kovtun were clearly not informed about the extremely dangerous radioactivity of the poison.)
Litvinenko had been a marked man ever since his defection. But the evidence, including the haphazard way his murder was carried out, suggests that the decision to kill him had been arrived at just weeks before he was poisoned. What led to the decision, since neither Lugovoy nor Kovtun had a clear motive? One possible explanation, according to the Owen report, is that Litvinenko was assisting the Spanish government in its investigation of the Russian mafia in Spain, and high-level Kremlin officials were implicated in organized crime there. Litvinenko was due to testify before a Spanish prosecutor just days after his poisoning.
Moreover, shortly before his death, Litvinenko handed over to Lugovoy a highly damaging dossier, compiled for the British firm Erinys, on Viktor Ivanov, an old KGB ally of Putin, who now heads the powerful Russian federal agency for controlling drugs. The dossier revealed that Ivanov, with Putin’s collusion, presided over a highly profitable operation for smuggling drugs through the port of St. Petersburg in the 1990s, when both were working for Anatoly Sobchak, the then mayor. It is possible that these two ventures of Litvinenko may have caused Putin and his FSB operatives to take immediate action.
The Russian government had prepared the way for the murder by passing two laws, in March and July 2006 respectively, that gave broad powers to the security services to hunt down and kill perceived enemies of the state outside the borders of the Russian Federation. According to the historian and Russia expert Robert Service, who testified at the inquiry, “it is inconceivable that [the laws] were not thought to be important elements in reinforcing support in public opinion for what the authorities wanted to do.” Berezovsky later told British investigators that these new laws had alarmed Litvinenko: “Sasha [Alexander] mentioned loads of times that this legislation of course was designed in the first place to get rid of us.”
Then, in October 2006, an Italian associate of Litvinenko, Mario Scaramella, who was involved in an official investigation of Russian organized crime in Italy and had enlisted Litvinenko’s assistance, received a series of threatening messages from sources connected to Russian security services. The messages made it clear that Litvinenko was high on a “hit list” of Russian enemies and even suggested that radioactive poison might be used to destroy people who were targets. Scaramella was so concerned that he arranged to meet Litvinenko in London in order to warn him that he was in danger. That was the very day Litvinenko was fatally poisoned.
The reaction of the British government to the inquiry’s findings has been disappointingly weak. Prime Minister David Cameron condemned what he called the “state-sponsored murder,” but stressed that his government needed to maintain a relationship with Russia in order to solve the Syrian crisis. The only new measure against Russia has been to announce a freeze of the British assets of Lugovoy and Kovtun, but it is highly doubtful that such assets exist.
The importance of Russia to the British economy may contribute to Downing Street’s hesitation to take a firmer stand. As The Economist observed a while ago: “The amount of money that post-Soviet oligarchs have pumped into ‘Londongrad’ means, say critics, that David Cameron’s government will never crack down on them.”
But this infusion of Russian wealth has brought problems. In March 2013 Berezovsky was found dead hanging from a shower rail at his ex-wife’s home outside London. The coroner left the cause of death open, saying he could not conclude definitively that it was suicide. Marina Litvinenko and her son Anatoly, who were treated by Berezovsky as part of his family, both told me that it was inconceivable that he would take his own life. And Berezovsky had received numerous death threats, as the inquiry revealed. Indeed, in 2010 his onetime trusted bodyguard Lugovoy sent him, through an emissary, a black T-shirt with these words emblazoned on the front:
To Be Continued
Another wealthy Russian oligarch, Alexander Perepilichny, dropped dead at age forty-four while jogging near his home in Surrey in November 2012. Although his death was at first attributed to natural causes, traces of a chemical poison were later detected in his body. Perepilichny, who fled Russia in 2009, was helping Hermitage Capital, a firm based in Guernsey, investigate tax fraud in Russia, where the firm had had substantial investments. An inquest into Perepilichny’s death is to begin next September.
In an open letter to David Cameron after the release of the Litvinenko report, Bill Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital, warned that “putting diplomatic and business relations with Russia above criminal justice and public safety is a sign of weakness that will surely lead to more killings on British soil.” The independent British foreign policy organization Chatham House agreed:
A weak response or one consisting only of words will merely encourage Russia that these acts go unpunished. British and Russian citizens alike who have offended President Putin should therefore continue to live in fear in London.
Putin, knowing that Britain and other Western nations are anxious for solutions to the crisis in Syria and to the Ukrainian conflict, may expect no further consequences from the Litvinenko inquiry. (The day after it came out Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US would consider lifting its economic sanctions against Russia if the Minsk agreements concerning Ukraine are implemented.)
But Putin’s Kremlin colleagues, many of whom have already been subject to sanctions by the West, either because of Ukraine or the scandalous 2009 death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for Browder’s Hermitage Capital, may be less sanguine. Yevgenia Albats, editor of the Moscow-based weekly The New Times, told me that the timing of the Litvinenko inquiry was a particular shock to Putin’s Kremlin cohort. It was followed just days later by a statement from the US Treasury official Adam Szubin that Putin is corrupt and the Treasury has known this for “many, many years.” According to Albats, that statement, along with the inquiry,
appeared as a message sent to Russian elites by the collective West: do something about Putin or you are, with all your billions in off-shores, in big trouble, i.e., no Putin after 2018 [the date of the next presidential election]. The Russian elite read the message and is trying to comprehend it.
Meanwhile Lugovoy, a leading and vocal member of the Russian parliament since 2007, has been thriving, with a reported income in the millions of dollars and a new, glamorous wife who is half his age. He appears frequently on Russian television and radio and recently served as a consultant for a drama series on Russia’s NTV called Outside Jurisdiction, based on the Litvinenko case. (Lugovoy’s character in the film, “Andrei Voronov,” is a hero who risks everything for the sake of his country, while Berezovsky is portrayed as the villain. Lugovoy’s wife Ksenia makes her acting debut playing Berezovsky’s assistant.) It is ironic that not long after Litvinenko’s murder, Berezovsky predicted in an interview that Lugovoy would soon be killed in Russia: “They don’t want to keep him alive because he is a witness of Putin’s crime.” Yet it was Berezovsky’s life, not Lugovoy’s, that would be cut short.