The initial story, which developed over a few weeks, was that Alexander Litvinenko, a former “spy” and opponent of Putin, met in a London sushi bar on 1 Nov 2006 with an Italian professor, Mario Scaramella, who had urgent information for him about the murder of the Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya. Litvinenko returned home, became sick, was taken to hospital and died three weeks later from radiation poisoning. His last words were to accuse Putin of having had him killed. This story was widely disseminated in suspiciously similar wording. It, together with the murder of a Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow, has become woven into a story that Russian President Putin routinely has his opponents murdered. Some were more sceptical, but the January piece in the New Yorker magazine reiterates the thesis that Putin’s enemies tend to die suddenly. (Summaries of some of the UK and US reactions).
Russians are strongly irritated at the way the immediate consensus that Russia is run by a sort of Murder Inc has been accepted so uncritically. The more suspicious believe that the story is a consciously manufactured plot to defame Putin and Russia.
From the first reports, there were reasons to be sceptical of the initial story. 1) all the sources, Litvinenko himself, (and Tim Bell, a major British PR and advertising executive, who handled the publicity) were people who worked for Boris Berezovskiy (see below); 2) Litvinenko was known to be a very unreliable source; 3) Even if Putin were in the habit of murdering his opponents, there were many more profitable targets in London alone; 4) the death bed accusation appears to exist only in English, which Litvinenko’s widow said he “couldn’t really speak”, and was given out by Alexander Goldfarb, another Berezovskiy employee.
In 1997, while working in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), in a section providing protection services, Litvinenko met Berezovskiy; shortly after, he was fired from the FSB (after dramatically stating that his superiors had ordered him to murder Berezovskiy) and began working for him openly. He moved to the UK and eventually became a British citizen. He had made a career of dramatic accusations – murder plots against Berezovskiy; Putin was responsible for the apartment building explosions in Russia in 1999; Italian politician Romano Prodi is a Soviet agent; al Qaeda is a KGB plot; Putin is a pedophile. He was never able to produce any convincing proof of these accusations and few paid much attention to him. There is also a claim that he was short of money and trying to blackmail people.
No single point of the original story has stood up in subsequent revelations
- Improbability – If Putin were in the habit of murdering his opposition, in London alone, there are three people who would be much higher on his list. Oleg Gordievskiy (one of the highest-ranking KGB officers ever to defect), Berezovskiy himself and Akhmed Zakayev (an apologist for the jihadists in Chechnya). And would he choose such a complicated means and assign the job to people inept enough to poison themselves?
- Mario Scaramella, the man with whom he met in the sushi bar in the original story. 1) denied his information was connected with Politkovskaya’s death); 2) none of the universities he claims to be associated with have heard of him; 3) is today under arrest in Italy accused of giving false evidence on a case involving arms smuggling.
- Polonium-210. Traces of polonium-210 were found all over London: in numerous hotels and offices and in Litvinenko’s home. Further traces were found corresponding to the movements of Dmitriy Kovtun (see below). In this connection, Berezovskiy’s statement in 2005 that the jihadists in Chechnya were close to building a nuclear weapon may be relevant (polonium can be used as a trigger). There is some evidence that Litvinenko was exposed to polonium-210 more than once. The material is, in fact, not that hard to obtain.
- Islamic Jihadist connections. Litvinenko 1) converted to Islam shortly before his death; 2) the rebel forces in Chechnya awarded him their “highest decoration” – what had he done for them and where were his loyalties?
- Boris Berezovskiy. Berezovskiy made a great deal of money in the Yeltsin years (when he was known as the “godfather of the Kremlin”) and was driven out of Russia by Putin because he violated Putin’s declaration that the shady billionaires from the Yeltsin period could keep their money so long as they stayed out of politics. Berezovskiy was granted asylum in the UK and has said that he is trying to overthrow Putin. Litvinenko was employed by Berezovskiy when he left the FSB; it appears that Berezovskiy kept him on a retainer but had recently cut it leaving him eager for money. Alexander Goldfarb, the source for much of the original story, who has been naively described as Litvinenko’s friend, is Berezovskiy’s “right hand”.
- Lugovoy and Kovtun. Andrey Lugovoy is another former FSB officer who quit to work for Berezovskiy; apparently he had known Litvinenko for some years. Dmitriy Kovtun is an associate of his. They were some of the people with whom Litvinenko met on the fatal day and traces of polonium-210 have been found on aircraft and in Germany associated with Kovtun’s movements. Both were reportedly made sick, but have recovered.
- Coverage. The media likes simple stories and that is what it was given in the beginning: brave opponent of Putin’s dictatorship murdered. As the story grew, with new characters, multiple appearances of polonium-210, Chechen connections, Scaramella’s arrest, it has become so complicated that media attention has wandered. But the simple story has lingered, and many people are not aware of the details that cast doubt on it.
- The three most significant new facts are: 1) the jihadist connection; 2) the widespread traces of radiation; 3) several cases of sickness of the principals (especially the case of Scaramella who met Litvinenko before Litvinenko met Lugovoy and Kovtun). What this evidence fits best is a story of nuclear smuggling in which the principals managed to contaminate themselves and spread radiation traces wherever they went. Clearly, the mystery remains, but all new evidence makes the simple original hypothesis that Putin murdered an enemy less probable.
Note: Feb 2016. In February 2009 I added this introduction
The death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former low-level KGB agent and employee of Boris Berezovsky, created scandalous world press. Western media were quick to intimate that President Putin had orchestrated the death, quoting, among other things, a deathbed letter written in English despite the fact that Litvinenko’s English was poor. More astute commentators observed Litivinenko’s connections with jihadists in Chechnya and the fact that Polonium, the radioactive material that killed him, can be used in making nuclear weapons; this theory is strengthened by Litvinenko’s deathbed conversion to Islam. Others concentrate on the fact that every story – and many appeared to be later discarded – came from one of Berezovsky’s employees: the original statement that he was sick with thallium poisoning, the Scaramella connection and the famous deathbed accusation. Berezovsky has publicly stated that he would do anything to bring down Putin; if Litvinenko was trying to smuggle the material to his friends in Chechnya, then Berezovskiy successfully spun the story so as to do great damage to Putin. The murder remains unsolved, but Russian state involvement seems the least likely explanation today.
And this final point:
- Last year, an American reporter, Edward Jay Epstein, actually visited Moscow to look at the evidence the British police had given the Russians to support their accusation of Lugovoy and came away very unconvinced: “After considering all the evidence, my hypothesis is that Litvinenko came in contact with a Polonium-210 smuggling operation and was, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposed to it.” His account summarises the case very well.