Is Putin a Murderous Thug?, Part 3: The Litivenko Case

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Next, this writer continues his examination of Putin’s tactics by looking at the case of Alexander Litivenko.  For previous discussions, see:

Is Putin a Murderous Thug?, Part 1: Apartment Buildings and Journalists

Is Putin a Murderous Thug?, Part 2:  Anna Politkovskaya 

An open critic of Putin was former FSB operative- Alexander Litivenko.  One week after the Politkovskaya murder, Litivenko accused Putin of sanctioning the murder. 

Litivenko was a member of the FSB and quickly rose in the ranks investigating corruption between Kremlin officials and oligarchs, as well as Russian mafia figures.  His constant reports and complaints made their way up the chain of command to Boris Yeltsin, but nothing was done.  In 1998, he was personally introduced to Putin by Boris Berezkovsky and it was agreed that he would report directly to Putin about his investigations of corruption, but, like Yeltsin, Putin was unimpressed and did little or nothing. 

He then started to get on the bad side of Putin after reporting on an investigation into Uzbek drug barons that had received cover from the FSB.  In November 1998, Berezkovsky alleged, in an open letter to the media, that operatives within the FSB had ordered his assassination.  Four days later, Litivenko held a news conference with other FSB officers at the newspaper Interfax which corroborated the allegations.  The following day, Putin fired Litivenko and disbanded his unit at the FSB claiming it was not his duty to hold press conferences.  Putin also ordered his arrest.

While awaiting trial in Moscow and under orders not to leave the city, Litivenko and his family traveled to Turkey by way of Ukraine.  In Ankara, he applied for asylum in the United States, but was denied.  With the assistance of Russian microbiologist and dissident Andrew Goldfarb, Litivenko got on an airplane bound for Moscow from Ankara with a stop first in London.  Upon arrival in London, Litivenko applied for asylum and was granted it in May 2001 on humanitarian grounds. 

While in London, he became an outspoken critic of Putin and formed an underground newspaper called Chechenpress.  Litivenko also became a close friend of Berezkovsky at this time who by now had become a staunch critic of Putin and who had also fled Russia.  While in London, some former dissidents and members of the FSB who fled Russia notified Litivenko of unspecified death threats against him, yet he openly mingled among the growing Russian population in London and often traveled with no security.

While in London, he was not making friends in Moscow with his many allegations.  He accused Russia of being a major supporter of terrorism around the world and said that the FSB was behind the 1999 Armenian parliament shooting that killed eight people.  He blamed the Russian apartment bombings on the FSB in order to vault Putin into power and restart the Chechen War, claimed that the Moscow movie theater siege by Chechen rebels was carried out by two FSB masterminds, and that the FSB had previous knowledge of the Beslan school siege but did not act on it. 

He also said that Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became a key leader of al-Qaeda, was secretly flown into Dagestan and trained as a terrorist by the FSB.  al-Zawahiri later surfaced in Afghanistan.  A former FSB official corroborated the accusation and al-Zawahiri was, in fact, arrested in Dagestan by Russian police in 1996 and released in 1997.  Litivenko was advised to avoid going to Italy since the FSB was very active there and had recruited Romano Prodi, a center-left politician who managed to become prime minister.

He accused Putin of personally protecting the drug trafficking cartels that were operating in Afghanistan and that since 1994, Putin had forged close ties with the Russian mafia.  He said the 2005 controversy over a publication depicting the prophet Mohammed was orchestrated by the FSB to punish Dutch officials over their refusal to extradite Chechen rebels to Moscow.  Perhaps the final straw was an article he published in Chechenpress accusing Putin of being a pedophile.

On November 1, 2006 Litivenko suddenly became ill.  That day, he met with two Russians- Dimitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy- along with a central Asian businessman introduced as Vladislav Sokolenko.  After their meeting, he met with an Italian friend, Mario Scaramella, where he presented evidence that the FSB had penetrated Italian political circles.  Two days later, Litivenko was taken by ambulance to a hospital where his situation grew worse. 

After being transferred to another hospital, a blood sample was sent to a nearby lab where a small gamma ray spike was detected.  By chance, another technician overheard the conversation and asked to see the results.  It was then suspected that polonium-210 was involved and the suspicions were confirmed the following day after analysis of a urine sample for tell-tale signs of alpha particles. 

Unlike other radioactive material, polonium-210 emits low levels of gamma radiation that cannot be detected by Geiger counters.  Also, unlike gamma radiation, alpha particles cannot penetrate thin barriers like paper or human skin.  The only way to be poisoned by alpha particles is through ingestion or inhalation.  Upon more tests, it was determined that Litivenko had ingested 200 times the lethal dose of the substance.

Litivenko eventually succumbed to the poisoning and died.  British authorities, with the assistance of the FBI, treated the death as a murder.  Immediately, police started retracing Litivenko’s steps using surveillance footage.  Detectives determined three distinct polonium trails in and out of London and all three involved Lugovoy and Kovtun. 

The first attempt took place in October during a meeting with Litivenko when they allegedly poisoned his tea, but he did not drink it.  A search of their London hotel room found large traces as apparently they spilled some, tried to clean it with a towel, and flushed some down the toilet.  They checked into another hotel then left London the following day.  They returned later in October for another attempt but apparently realizing the presence of security cameras, failed to carry it out and left for Hamburg where the FBI found traces of polonium. 

They finally returned and managed to poison Litivenko on November 1st at the Millenium Hotel. Everywhere he went after that meeting, investigators found traces of polonium.  His wife later tested positive which indicated that Litivenko’s body was excreting the poison through sweat.  No one became sick because no one else ingested the polonium.  Wherever Litivenko went there were traces of polonium, and they were the only other places where Lugovoy and Kovtun were present.  It was later determined that Lugovoy had previously worked for the FSB and Kovtun for the GRU, military intelligence.  Further implicating the Russians, the atomic labs traced the polonium-210 to a Russian atomic weapons facility.

In early December, British authorities requested to interview at least five Russians implicated and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov offered limited cooperation with the probe.  Yuri Chaika, the prosecutor-general in Russia, then declared that anyone charged with the poisoning would be tried in Russia, not Great Britain.  Moreover, he asserted that any interviews must be conducted with Russian officials present.  Later, Britain requested their formal extradition which was denied. 

To this date, no arrests have been made.  Naturally, Lugovoy and Kovtun have denied the allegations.  Putin disclaimed any responsibility for the death stating that Litivenko was insignificant, posed no danger to Russia, and was mentally unstable.  Others have pointed the finger at Boris Berezkovsky who had befriended Litivenko while in exile.  Others have blamed rogue elements in the FSB or other Russian oligarchs.

One of the strangest facts about the case is the manner in which Lugovoy and Kovtun handled the poison.  They clumsily left behind traces wherever they went, even discarding it down toilets.  For an operation which some have analyzed as being sophisticated, planned and rehearsed, the evidence they left behind brings some of that analysis into question. 

It is well-known that oligarchs and organized crime figures in Russia often recruit current or former Russian intelligence agents into their ranks.  It was a practice forged in the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Thus, it could be possible that because of their past membership in the FSB and GRU, a false narrative has been created that the assassination must be the work of the Russian government and that such a high-profile hit had to come on orders from the highest levels, possibly even Putin.

Like Anna Politnaskaya,  Litivenko had a long list of enemies besides Putin.  He made enemies of the Russian mafia, oligarchs and officials in the FSB.  It is possible that some elements in the FSB were responsible for the hit without the knowledge or approval of Putin.  It does not help that many Putin supporters in the Russian press and Duma later made comments that the Litivenko murder was a profound reminder to those who would speak out about the Russian leadership of Vladimir Putin.  These comments do nothing to quell the belief that Putin was ultimately responsible for Litivenko’s death.

In the end, a dead Litivenko was more of a problem to Putin than a living Litivenko.

Next: Boris Berezkovsky and Others

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