Litvinenko: A follow-up

A long article in yesterday’s New York Times summarizes the information available so far on the death of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin and of the Russian federal security service, the FSB (heir to the KGB). According to the story:

Scientists were astounded at the use of the rare and hard-to-produce substance, polonium 210, which is dangerous when breathed, injected or ingested. …

The police searched several locations that Mr. Litvinenko had visited in early November— the Itsu sushi bar on Piccadilly, his home in the white-collar Muswell Hill neighborhood of north London and the Mayfair Millennium Hotel near the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square — and said they had found radioactive traces at each of them. Television showed plainclothes officers carrying away a metal box and several tote bags of evidence from the Itsu restaurant.

A British counterterrorism official said polonium 210 was a byproduct of the nuclear industry and is used in the production of antistatic materials. But in the form believed to have been used in the suspected poisoning, it would have required high-grade technical skills and a sophisticated scientific process to produce, probably within a nuclear lab.

See also the related story on polonium, and more information in this Reuters story. One British cabinet member, Northern Ireland minister Peter Hain, has made an unusually strong public statement:

“The promise that President Putin brought to Russia when he came to power has been clouded by what has happened since, including some extremely murky murders,” he told BBC television.

Meanwhile, the Times story quotes offers this gem from a Putin spokesman:

While Mr. Litvinenko’s friends have accused President Putin, the Russian leader’s own supporters have hinted at a conspiracy of a different nature.

In Helsinki, where the poisoning overshadowed efforts to resolve disagreements on European-Russian relations, Mr. Putin’s aide in charge of European affairs, Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, said: “What is alarming is the eye-striking, excessive number of deliberate coincidences of high-profiling deaths of people who positioned themselves as opponents to the existing Russian government with international events in which the Russian president takes part.”

He added that Russia faced “a well-orchestrated campaign or a plan to consistently discredit Russia and its leader,” according to the Interfax news agency.

Deliberate coincidences! Alarming, indeed. Obviously, those devious foes of Russia will stop at nothing. Maybe Litvinenko poisoned himself just so he could discredit poor Putin!

Obviously, I don’t think anyone should jump to conclusions and blame Putin personally, or the Russian intelligence services in general. Other scenarios are possible too — though, if the murder was carried out by rogue elements within the FSB, that does not necessarily absolve the Russian regime. As a friend of Litvinenko’s told Reuters:

Those rogue people are … the direct responsibility of Mr Putin. They are the result of his ideology of force and this nationalism which is now being injected in the Russian people.

However, I don’t buy the idea that the Kremlin had no reason to murder Litvinenko, or that it does not stand to benefit by his death. For one, the murder could be a very effective way to send a message to other critics of the Putin regime, particularly those who don’t simply criticize but seek to expose the regime’s misdeeds: lie low, or else. As for the harm to Putin’s and Russia’s image abroad, and to international relations: quite possibly, those reponsible for the murder consicously decided that the risk of serious damage was very low. After all, it’s highly unlikely that the Kremlin connection (if it exists) can ever be established beyond a reasonable doubt; and, particularly given the West’s current energy dependence on Russia at the moment, it’s also quite unlikely that the Western powers would risk a real break with Russia, at least in the absence of definitive evidence.

The most likely scenario is that Russia will remain a suspect in the Litvinenko murder without ever being proven guilty. And that scenario, actually, may serve the Putin regime’s interests very well: the suspicion will likely be enough to intimidate and silence many opponents of the regime, but not enough to really muck things up for Russia on the international scene.

Does that mean Putin did it? Not necessarily. But he certainly had the motive; and, at least judging by the latest reports, it’s not clear how many people with no connection to the Kremlin would have had the opportunity.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Litvinenko: A follow-up

  1. Anonymous

    Litvinenko claimed Romano Prodi was an agent of the KGB. He also claimed the FSB supported Al Qaida. Who would take serious such a critic?

    And what about his friend, the oligarch, Boris Berezowsky?

    Info on all this can be easily found on the net.

  2. Cathy Young

    The full information on Litvinenko’s comments referenced by “anonymous” can be found in the Wikipedia article on Litvinenko.

    In a July 2005 interview with the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita, Litvinenko alleged that Ayman al-Zawahiri, along with other al-Qaeda leaders, was trained by the FSB in Dagestan (a republic neighboring Chechnya) in 1998.[7]

    In April 2006, a British MEP for London, Gerard Batten (UKIP), cited allegations by Litvinenko that Romano Prodi, the Italian Centre-Left leader (now Prime Minister) and former President of the European Commission, had been the KGB’s “man in Italy”. Batten demanded an inquiry into the allegations. He told the European Parliament that Litvinenko had been informed by FSB deputy chief, General Anatoly Trofimov (who was shot dead in Moscow in 2005,[8]) that “Romano Prodi is our man (in Italy)”. According to Brussels-based newspaper the EU Reporter on 3 April 2006, “another high-level source, a former KGB operative in London, has confirmed the story”. Among Litvinenko’s most serious claims is that Prodi assisted in the protection of KGB operatives allegedly involved in the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981.[9]

    However, there is at least one possibly contrasting version about reported Litvinenko’s allegations regarding Prodi: an interview which, according to “La Repubblica”, a main Italian newspaper, Litvinenko had given to one of its reporters on March 3, 2005. In this interview, as reported by “La Repubblica” shortly after Litvinenko’s death, he revealed that in March 2004 he had been asked by Mario Scaramella (see below) if the tip that Prodi had passed on about the safe house where Aldo Moro was held after being kidnapped by the Red Brigades had its source in the KGB (and not in a séance, as Prodi had claimed); and if the KGB was behind Moro’s kidnapping and the training of the Red Brigades. Litvinenko’s reply, according to his account given to “La Repubblica”, was the following: “I said that I did not know any details about [Moro's] kidnapping and that I had never heard about Prodi. I just pointed out that, if they wanted to hear my opinion as an expert, it was hardly believable that Prodi had learned that piece of information during a séance and that surely the KGB had followed the kidnapping trying to acquire information. I did not have and I do not have any kind of evidence about Prodi.”[10]

    On 26 April 2006, Batten repeated his call for a parliamentary inquiry, revealing that “former, senior members of the KGB are willing to testify in such an investigation, under the right conditions”. He added, “It is not acceptable that this situation is unresolved, given the importance of Russia’s relations with the European Union”.[11]

    I don’t see anything here that would be particularly damaging to Litvinenko’s credibility. (And frankly, the information about Prodi and his claim to have obtained information on the Aldo Moro kidnapping during a seance is rather … eyebrow-raising.)

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