The world has long known that Russian President Vladimir Putin hankers for a world long gone, one in which Moscow was a superpower and other countries routinely deferred to its preferences. Apparently, however, the Russian leader also prefers a world in which there is no rule of law, where national leaders are unchecked in their powers and free to do anything —including murder of political opponents — with impunity. That is one of the conclusions that can be drawn from the investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KBG agent who had crossed Putin. Another, equally troubling, conclusion is that Putin is likely to suffer no consequences from this brutal act.
Litvinenko was murdered in London in 2006 after meeting two former colleagues for about half an hour; during that meeting he drank cold green tea laced with polonium-210, an extremely radioactive substance. Despite consuming just three or four mouthfuls, Litvinenko absorbed enough of the poison to make death inevitable; photos from his deathbed show a once vigorous man reduced to a hairless, near cadaverous state in just over three weeks. His body was so radioactive that he was buried in a lead-lined casket and his autopsy was conducted by medical personnel in protective clothing.
Litvinenko accused the Russian authorities and Putin directly of ordering his killing, but it took several years before the clamor for an investigation produced results. Sir Robert Owen, a judge, was appointed to head a six-month investigation that concluded last week that the two men — Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB agent, and Dmitry Kovtun, a former Soviet Army officer — “were acting on behalf of others when they poisoned Litvinenko,” most likely “under the direction of the FSB,” the Russian security services. The operation, said Owen, “was probably approved by [FSB chief Nikolai] Patrushev and also by President Putin.”
The evidence for official Russian involvement is compelling. Polonium-210 is extremely poisonous and very hard to come by; only governments have access. A high polonium concentration was found in the teapot that served Litvinenko’s deadly drink and at the sushi restaurant where the three men ate dinner; a veritable radioactive trail was left across London in offices, hotels and even on the seat in which Lugovoi sat on his flight from Moscow to London.
Motive is also easy to supply. Litvininko was considered a traitor by his former employers. He had left the FSB and after working for Russian oligarchs as a security consultant, he had reportedly been hired by MI6, the British intelligence service, and was offered British citizenship just before the murder. But the rationale for killing him was more personal. Litvinenko accused Putin and the Russian government of collusion with the mafia and corruption, and of planting bombs in Russian apartment buildings in 1999, incidents that were used to justify an offensive against Chechens. He also charged Putin with pedophilia, creating “a personal dimension to the antagonism between Mr Litvinenko on the one hand and President Putin on the other,” said Owen.
The evidence will only be circumstantial, however. Some of the testimony, from British intelligence services, was provided in secret and will not be available to public scrutiny. More important was the refusal of Russian authorities to cooperate. Claiming that they did not want to prejudice a Russian investigation into the killing, Moscow would not let the two men be interviewed, and had no interest in extraditing them to the U.K. for questioning. Lugovoi has since been elected to the Russian Parliament, where he enjoys immunity from any legal charge.
The Russian government denied all charges, dismissing the inquiry as an “orchestrated political farce” designed to “smear Russia.” A Foreign Ministry spokesperson concluded that “Agatha Christie ain’t got nothing on this.”
British rhetoric was fierce. Interior Minister Theresa May in Parliament called the killing “a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and of civilized behavior.” British reaction will be limited. The Russian ambassador has been called in and the assets of Lugovoi and Kovtun will likely be frozen and they will face travel bans.
A more telling response came from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who, like other world leaders, will be inclined to see this incident within the larger constellation of relations with Russia. In this framework, world problems such as the bloody civil war in Syria, take precedence over the life of one man — a former KGB agent at that. As he explained, “Do we at some level have to go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis? Yes we do.”
Putin makes similar calculations. He certainly prefers a 19th-century mindset in which Russia is a great power, a status that gives it license to act as it pleases. In truth, the more appealing element of that world view is the omnipotence enjoyed by the leader: He is above the law, free to act as he chooses, at home or abroad. That mentality leads to murder in fashionable London hotels, invasions of sovereign states and the annexation of coveted territory. More lawlessness will follow.
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