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.
“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.