Litvinenko verdict: what happens now?

What does the British government intend to do now that the Kremlin is carrying out assassinations on its territory again?


The British inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko concluded on Thursday, making official what everyone already knew: the Russian intelligence services, ‘probably’ at the direct order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, murdered Litvinenko in London in November 2006.

Welcome as it is to have this on the record and to have Litvinenko’s killers named for all the world to see, it now leaves questions, primarily:

Will similar forensic scrutiny be brought to bear on several other odd instances of political and other crime in Russia?

And what does the British government intend to do now that the Kremlin is carrying out assassinations on its territory again?

Litvinenko began as an informant for the Soviet KGB in 1986 before becoming an officer in 1988. He continued to work in intelligence after the Soviet Empire collapsed, working his way up in the Federal Security Service (FSB), the premier internal intelligence service of the Russian Federation and the primary successor to the KGB.

In 1998, Litvinenko publicly reported high-level corruption at the FSB, an early warning of the fact that the distinction between State, spies, and organised crime in Russia was being lost.

Under government threats – “If something won’t get him to prison, we’ll open another case and another one and another one,” a State prosecutor told Litvinenko’s wife after one of his arrests – Litvinenko defected to Britain in 2000.

From 2003 onwards, Litvinenko was employed by Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, MI6, to help unravel Russian organised crime, especially in Europe.

Indeed, the timing of Litvinenko’s assassination seems to have been spurred by the fact that he was about to testify about Russian State criminality in Spain, where mafiosos connected to Anatoly Sobchak, the Saint Petersburg mayor in the 1990s, for whom Putin was an aide, worked closely.

Whatever the reasons for the decision, Litvinenko was never in any doubt about what had happened to him.

Litvinenko spent his final days helping British security identify his killers. Litvinenko was ‘an ideal witness—good with descriptions, heights, details’,  writes Luke Harding, whose forthcoming book unpacks this most elaborate assassination.

“Litvinenko had … perfected his observation skills. It was part of his basic training.”

It meant the suspects’ list in the administration of the killing was short and definitive, and the suspects’ list for the authority on which these men operated was even shorter:

“I have been poisoned by the Russian Special Services on Putin’s order,” Litvinenko told British police.

Now Litvinenko’s surmises have been confirmed.

“The FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by [Nikolai] Patrushev, then-head of the FSB, and also by President Putin,” British judge Robert Owen concluded.

“I have concluded that there is a strong probability that when [Andrei] Lugovoy poisoned Mr. Litvinenko, he did so under the direction of the FSB. I have further concluded that [Dmitry] Kovtun was also acting under FSB direction.”

Lugovoy is now a deputy in the Russian Duma (parliament) and Kovtun is a former agent of the KGB and now a businessman. These two men administered the polonium-210 to Litvinenko, putting it in a pot of tea from which Litvinenko poured himself a cup in their presence at the Pine Bar in Mayfair on November 1, 2006, exactly six years after Litvinenko had arrived in Britain.

Litvinenko had made many shocking allegations against the Kremlin during his time in Britain; that Moscow felt the need to kill him suggests he might have been on to something.

The primary incident is the 1999 bombing of the apartment buildings in Moscow that Putin used as a trigger to re-invade Chechnya, framing the separatist struggle under the rubric of the war on terrorism, and cementing his dictatorship under the same cover. Litvinenko accused the Kremlin of orchestrating those bombings to enable Putin to stabilise and legitimise his regime.

Litvinenko is not the only person to accuse Moscow of being behind the apartment bombings. Four journalists, most notably Anna Politkovskaya, whose investigations of the incident had led or were leading them in the same direction, have been murdered, and the prosecutions have been distinctly laggard.

With Russia’s history of manipulating terrorism for political advantage—right back to the nineteenth century—this deserves a closer look.

For Britain, the major question is whether the government will be able to pursue a long-term strategy with regards to the presence of Russian influence in the country. Throwing out known and suspected Russian spies under official cover would be a start.

Beginning an investigation, as the United States now has, into Russian influence-peddling with political parties and ostensible activist groups—what we used to call subversion—is an obvious next stage.

Perhaps even more significant is Russian money in the City. London has proven too willing to look the other way and bend the rule of law for a short-term influx of cash, but as Peter Pomerantsev has pointed out, this is self-defeating: what makes London an attractive destination for foreign capital is its secure legal framework.

If it transpires that legal protections for investors can be removed by a well-placed bribe then Britain ceases to be a valued investment opportunity.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. Follow him on Twitter

13 Responses to “Litvinenko verdict: what happens now?”

  1. David Lindsay

    Nothing like the Litvinenko Report deserves to be taken with the slightest seriousness if it contains the word “probably” in its conclusion. That highly questionable character ought never to have been allowed into this country, where his presence placed our own people at very grave danger, although he was an undesirable for a number of other reasons, too.

    That this incident was allowed to become public at all can only have been a decision of the utmost political cynicism. But the Bomb Russia Brigade will never be satisfied. Yet this “inquiry” was held purely in order to placate that Brigade. Even if its findings were broadly accurate, then that would more than suggest that the same kind of thing went on in reverse.

    In the same way, Michael Fallon bemoans Russian bombing of Syria, which is serious rather than superficial action in the cause on which the Government divided the House of Commons purely in order to divide the Labour Party, since the action pursuant to that Division has been of only the most half-hearted and tokenistic kind.

    In Geneva today, the chief negotiator for the Syrian opposition is to be Mohammed Alloush, of the Saudi-backed Islamist terrorist organisation, Jaysh al-Islam. Russia recognises him and it for what they are. But none of this mattered to David Cameron, so long as strikes were launched on Jeremy Corbyn.

    Cameron has that same sole motivation where Trident is concerned. He has never made much of a defensive case, and he no longer attempts to make any at all. He sounds exactly like a Labour MP of the trade union Right. The GMB ought to send his constituency party a few thousand pounds. The “jobs” argument, you see, splits the Labour Party, and that is all that matters to Cameron.

    At least according to what has become the official version of events, Trident is such a deterrent that Russia thinks nothing of administering a radioactive poison to a British citizen in a London cup of tea, that great common love of the British and the Russians. And the Iranians, come to that.

    Everyone in Russia knows perfectly well that nothing radioactive is ever coming their way from Britain. The defensive case for Trident, or for nuclear weapons in general, cannot be compatible with this report on Litvinenko. But the Government has never sought to make any such case, anyway.

  2. Michael Anasakta

    @David Lindsay:disqus-
    “Probably” is a legitimate response in a case where the alleged
    perpetrators have fled the country, won’t cooperate with any British
    investigation, and there is an array of evidence pointing to their role
    in the assination. I note that Mr. Lindsay’s criticism of the Litvinenko
    Report is restricted solely to his view of the word “probably” and is
    covered entirely by the his very first sentence. The remainder of his
    response is merely a political diatribe against David Cameron. That Mr.
    Lindsay has a political axe to grind, I consider highly probable.

  3. David Lindsay

    On this site? The very idea!

  4. Michael Anasakta

    David, you have agreed that in my response the conclusion of “highly probable” was valid. i feel the same about “probably” in the Litvenko Report. Thank you for validating that when based on sufficient evidence the use of the word probable can be a correct finding.

  5. Chasityrupchurch

    Nothing like the Litvnenko Rport desrves to be takn with the slihtest seriousess if it

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