LONDON – In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB’s successor, was poisoned in London with radioactive polonium-210. For the last decade, his widow, Marina Litvinenko, has waged an uphill battle to get a measure of justice for her husband. Now, finally, she has prevailed.
Litvinenko had to stand up not only to the Kremlin, which was accused of sending two agents to London to carry out the assassination, but also to the United Kingdom’s government, which was wary of spoiling its relationship with Russia. At one point three years ago, she stood in tears on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice, where judges had refused to protect her from the potentially high legal costs if she failed to compel the government to hold an inquiry.
But in the end, Litvinenko got her day — actually, 34 days — in court. And on Jan. 21, Sir Robert Owen, chairman of the public inquiry, announced his verdict: It is “beyond doubt” that the FSB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun carried out the assassination, which was “probably approved” by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The evidence against Lugovoi and Kovtun came mostly from the police file, which established a “polonium trail” left by the pair around London. Very high levels of contamination were noted, particularly in the lavatory next to the bar where Litvinenko drank the poisoned tea and in the two bathrooms in the hotel rooms where the assassins stayed. Litvinenko never visited any of these three places, where the assassins apparently disposed of the unused toxin. A witness testified that Kovtun had declared, before the hit, that he was on a mission to “kill a traitor” with “a very expensive poison.”
The inquiry found that the assassins failed twice before fulfilling their mission. On Oct. 16, with most of the radioactive material spilling onto the tablecloth, Litvinenko ingested only a small dose, and on Oct. 26, all of the Po-210 spilled on the floor of Lugovoi’s hotel bathroom. Finally, on Nov. 1, they managed to give Litvinenko the lethal dose, causing his death 22 days later.
Though Po-210 obviously leaves a trail, it is difficult to detect unless one is looking for it, as it emanates rare alpha radiation, which is not readily detectable by conventional hospital and police equipment like Geiger counters. It was not until three weeks after the poisoning, just hours before his death, that Litvinenko was tested for alpha-emitters.
As for the role of the Russian state, that evidence came from MI6, the British secret service, and was presented in a closed session of the inquiry. Although the evidence has not been made public, the Daily Telegraph reports that the U.S. National Security Agency provided the British authorities with intercepts of electronic communications between the assassins and their handlers in Moscow. The argument implicating Putin comes from expert testimony that such an order could not have been issued without his approval.
The obvious question is why. Here, Owen was less precise, listing several factors that could have put Litvinenko in Putin’s crosshairs, including his defection to the U.K. in 2000, his close relationship with Putin’s arch-enemy, Boris Berezovsky, and his allegations of FSB complicity in the terror bombings that propelled Putin to power in 1999. Litvinenko’s blog post calling Putin the “Kremlin pedophile” in response to the president’s bizarre decision to kiss an unknown boy’s stomach in full view of the world’s media could also have fueled the Kremlin’s ire.
But the most plausible motive for the assassination relates to Litvinenko’s plan to testify about Putin’s ties to Spain-based Russian organized crime — ties that dated back to the 1990s, when Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. With Litvinenko scheduled to provide official evidence to a prosecutor in Madrid just one week after his poisoning, the apparent haste and persistence of Lugovoi and Kovtun is easy to understand.
Had he made it to Madrid, Litvinenko’s deposition would have focused on the business connections between the bosses of the so-called Tambov crime syndicate and members of Putin’s inner circle. It is these Putin cronies who now face targeted sanctions by the United States and the European Union over Russia’s recent adventures in Ukraine. Their illicit enrichment is reflected in a recent statement by the White House that they consider Putin “corrupt.”
Not surprisingly, the Kremlin has lashed out at the White House for the accusations, just as it has at the U.K. government for the Litvinenko inquiry, whose findings, though “a joke,” will “poison” Britain’s relationship with Russia. As usual, the Kremlin is attempting to avoid accountability by spewing disinformation and claiming that the West is persecuting Russia. State-controlled media even offered an alternate (and utterly baseless) theory: Litvinenko was “accidentally poisoned” while handling polonium for MI6.
In Litvinenko’s case, the accused are unlikely to face many real-world consequences. Putin is immune from any kind of prosecution, and he refuses to extradite Lugovoi and Kovtun to face murder charges. The U.K.’s response has included granting Marina Litvinenko a closed-door meeting with Home Secretary Theresa May and freezing the suspects’ assets. But, while Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the killing, he also spoke of keeping lines of communication open because the U.K. “needs Russia” for a settlement in Syria.
As a result, the punishment will not fit the crime. Nonetheless, the importance of revealing the truth cannot be overestimated — not just for the sake of the victim, but also to make clear what Putin’s regime is capable of doing. This case — the first-ever terrorist attack in a Western capital using a radioactive weapon — will be remembered as a hallmark of Putin’s ruthless and corrupt reign.
Alex Goldfarb is president of the Litvinenko Justice Foundation in London. © Project Syndicate, 2016. www.project-syndicate.org