Putin “probably approved” Litvinenko murder

January 22, 2016

A British judicial inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006 has found that the Russian dissident was murdered in an FSB operation which was “probably approved by Mr. Patrushev and also by President Putin”. Nikolai Patrushev was head of the FSB in 2006. The inquiry was set up at the end of July 2014 under the chairmanship of Sir Robert Owen, a retired justice of the High Court of England and Wales, and its report was submitted to Parliament on 21 January 2016.

Summary of Conclusions

In his Report into the Death of Alexander Litvinenko, Justice Owen found as follows:

Alexander Litvinenko was born in Voronezh, Russia on 4 December 1962. He was an officer in the Committee for State Security (KGB) and latterly the Federal Security Service (FSB). He was dismissed in 1998 after he made public allegations of illegal activity within the FSB.

Mr Litvinenko left Russia in 2000. He arrived in the UK with his wife and son on 1 November 2000. Mr Litvinenko was granted asylum in 2001 and became a British citizen in October 2006.

In 2006 Mr Litvinenko was living with his family at 140 Osier Crescent, Muswell Hill, London. He was a journalist and author. He also undertook investigatory work, including preparing due diligence reports on Russian individuals and companies.

On the evening of 1 November 2006, the sixth anniversary of his arrival in the UK, Mr Litvinenko fell ill. He was admitted to Barnet General Hospital on 3 November, and was subsequently transferred to University College Hospital in central London on 17 November. His condition declined. He became unconscious on 23 November. At 8.51pm Mr Litvinenko suffered a cardiac arrest. Resuscitation was commenced but terminated when it became clear that he would not regain spontaneous cardiac output. Mr Litvinenko was pronounced dead at 9.21pm on 23 November 2006.

Throughout the time that Mr Litvinenko was in hospital, the doctors had been unable successfully to diagnose his condition. In fact, the cause of his illness only became clear several hours before his death when tests on samples of his blood and urine sent to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston confirmed the presence in his body of extremely high levels of the radioactive isotope polonium 210. Subsequent examination of Mr Litvinenko’s body and detailed testing of samples taken from it confirmed that he had died as a result of being poisoned with polonium 210.

As to the medical cause of Mr Litvinenko’s death, I am sure of the following matters:

(a) Mr Litvinenko died at 9.21pm on 23 November 2006 in University College Hospital, having suffered a cardiac arrest from which medical professionals were unable to resuscitate him.

(b) The cardiac arrest was the result of an acute radiation syndrome from which Mr Litvinenko was suffering.

(c) The acute radiation syndrome was caused by Mr Litvinenko ingesting approximately 4.4Gbq of polonium 210 on 1 November 2006

There is abundant evidence that Mr Litvinenko met Andrey Lugovoy and his associate Dmitri Kovtun for tea at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair during the afternoon of 1 November 2006. The forensic evidence shows that the Pine Bar was heavily contaminated with polonium 210. The highest readings were taken from the table where Mr Litvinenko was sitting and from the inside of one of the teapots. No comparable levels of contamination were found in any of the other places that Mr Litvinenko visited that day.

I am sure that Mr Litvinenko ingested the fatal dose of polonium 210 whilst drinking tea in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel during the afternoon of 1 November 2006.

I have carefully considered the possibility that Mr Litvinenko ingested the fatal dose of polonium 210 as the result of an accident. I have also considered whether Mr Litvinenko might have taken the poison deliberately, in order to commit suicide.

I am sure that Mr Litvinenko did not ingest the polonium 210 either by accident or to commit suicide. I am sure, rather, that he was deliberately poisoned by others.

I am sure that Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun placed the polonium 210 in the teapot at the Pine Bar on 1 November 2006. I am also sure that they did this with the intention of poisoning Mr Litvinenko.

I am sure that the two men had made an earlier attempt to poison Mr Litvinenko, also using polonium 210, at the Erinys meeting on 16 October 2006.

I am sure that Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun knew that they were using a deadly poison (as opposed, for example, to a truth drug or a sleeping draught), and that they intended to kill Mr Litvinenko. I do not believe, however, that they knew precisely what the chemical that they were handling was, or the nature of all its properties.

I am sure that Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun were acting on behalf of others when they poisoned Mr Litvinenko.

When Mr Lugovoy poisoned Mr Litvinenko, it is probable that he did so under the direction of the FSB. I would add that I regard that as a strong probability. I have found that Mr Kovtun also took part in the poisoning. I conclude therefore that he was also acting under FSB direction, possibly indirectly through Mr Lugovoy but probably to his knowledge.

The FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin.

Litvinenko, AlexanderMotives

In Chapter 8 of the Report (pp. 228-228), Sir Robert Owen addressed the issue of motive.

I consider that there were several reasons why organisations and individuals within the Russian State might have wished to target Mr Litvinenko, including to the point of killing him, by late 2006. These reasons overlapped and their effect was no doubt cumulative. By way of summary, I shall identify five core themes that emerge from my analysis in the earlier sections of the Report.

First, Mr Litvinenko was regarded as having betrayed the FSB as a result of the public disclosures that he made before he left Russia, in particular his claim that he had been ordered to kill Mr Berezovsky. This idea of betrayal was compounded by Mr Litvinenko’s campaigning activity in the UK. The two books that he wrote accused the FSB of responsibility for the 1999 apartment bombings and of collusion in organised crime.

Second, according to Mr Lugovoy the FSB also received information that Mr Litvinenko was working for British intelligence, and that he had tried to recruit Mr Lugovoy to do so too.

Third, Mr Litvinenko was a prominent associate of both Boris Berezovsky and Akhmed Zakayev, both of whom were leading opponents of the Putin administration.

Fourth, the causes espoused by Mr Litvinenko – such as the FSB’s alleged responsibility for the apartment bombings, the war in Chechnya, and alleged collusion between President Putin and other members of his administration and organised crime – were areas of particular sensitivity to the Putin administration.

Finally, there was undoubtedly a personal dimension to the antagonism between Mr Litvinenko on the one hand and President Putin on the other. The history between the two men dated back to their (only) meeting in 1998, at a time when Mr Putin was the newly appointed head of the FSB and Mr Berezovsky and Mr Litvinenko still hoped that he might implement a programme of reform. In the years that followed, Mr Litvinenko made repeated highly personal attacks, culminating in the allegation of paedophilia in July 2006.

These themes overlap. Many of them are reflected in Professor (Robert) Service’s observation that President Putin, “almost certainly looked on what Litvinenko did after fleeing abroad as punishable treachery”. I am satisfied that, in general terms, members of the Putin administration, including the President himself and the FSB, had motives for taking action against Mr Litvinenko, including killing him, in late 2006. 

_________________________________________

Evidence of similar deaths and killings

The Report also provided a history of regime killings of political opponents. The following is an extensive extract from Chapter 8 (pp. 228-233).

During the course of the Inquiry hearings, I heard evidence about the deaths of a considerable number of President Putin’s opponents that took place in the years prior to Mr Litvinenko’s death. In the case of some, there had obviously been a murder, and the only question was who had sponsored it. Other cases were more complicated in that there was a preliminary question as to whether the deceased had been murdered or died of natural causes, and a secondary question as to who was responsible for the murder if that was indeed what had taken place.

Anna Politkovskaya was undoubtedly murdered. She was shot dead in Moscow on 7 October 2006. As I have set out above in Part 5, chapter 6, she was a prominent journalist and campaigner against President Putin. She and Mr Litvinenko were friends and fellow campaigners for Chechen causes. Professor Service recorded that “most observers” believed Ms Politkovskaya’s death to have been “a political assassination”, with suspicion falling on either President Putin or President Kadyrov of Chechnya.

Sergei Yushenkov was shot dead in a street in Moscow in April 2003. He was a member of the Russian Parliament who had been one of the co-founders of the oppositionist Liberal Russia party with Boris Berezovsky in 2002. He was also a prominent member of the commission that had been established to investigate the 1999 apartment bombings. Marina Litvinenko recalled that Mr Yushenkov had met Mr Litvinenko in London in 2002 or 2003.

Another of the founders of the Liberal Russia party was Vladimir Golovlev. He was shot and killed in Moscow in 2002. Mr Goldfarb said that his death, “appear[ed] to have been a political assassination”.

Professor Service noted that, “extrajudicial killings outside the frontiers of the Russian Federation have sometimes been attributed to Russian security forces.”

The best known example of political assassination conducted by Russia outside its borders during this period is the February 2004 killing of the Chechen Vice President Zelinkhan Yandarbiev. He was blown up as he left a mosque with his son. Professor Service stated that Mr Yandarbiev was “a strong critic of the Putin administration”, who had been a leader of the Chechen insurgency until going abroad in 1999. He said that, prior to his death, Mr Yandarbiev had been conducting his anti-Moscow activities in Qatar, where he was free from the risk of extradition to Russia, and that he had been held responsible by the Russian authorities for the Moscow theatre siege in October 2002. As to Russia’s responsibility for Mr Yandarbiev’s death, Professor Service stated: “Three agents of Russian military intelligence were arrested in Doha and accused of planting the bomb that killed Yandarbiev. Igor Ivanov, Secretary of the Security Council, was sent to put pressure on the Qatari administration. Two Qatari citizens were taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport; they were said to be suspected of connections with the Chechen insurgents. Putin wished to secure the release of the Russian agents. He phoned the Emir himself about the matter. One of the agents was allowed back to Russia. Two remained in custody until December 2004, when they were flown to Moscow to serve out their sentences in Russian The Qatari detainees were liberated as part of the diplomatic bargain.”

A few months after Mr Yandarbiev’s death, in September 2004, there was an apparent attempt to poison Viktor Yuschenko, the anti-Moscow candidate in Presidential elections taking place in Ukraine. Professor Service recorded that Mr Yuschenko’s poisoning was attributed to Russian security forces.

Nor was this the only incident during this period of the suspected poisoning of opponents of President Putin by Russian agents.

In 2003, Russian politician Yuri Shchekochikhin died of apparent poisoning. Professor Service described Mr Shchekochikhin’s career in the following terms: “Yuri Shchekochikhin was deputy editor of Novoya Gazeta and a campaigning columnist over many years. Elected as a Duma deputy in 1995, he was active in the struggle against corruption, against abuses in the armed forces and against the wars in Chechnya. He denounced the official story about the Moscow apartment bombings in September 1999. He frequently exposed malpractices by FSB officers.” Mr Goldfarb said that Mr Shchekochikhin did not lose his hair as he died but that his symptoms had resembled those of Mr Yuschenko. He thought that Mr Shchekochikhin had been poisoned with dioxins, rather than with a radioactive substance. He added, “Everyone believed that he was poisoned… his family and his party, colleagues, always claimed that he was poisoned.”

Ms Politkovskaya had nearly died from poisoning in 2004, two years before she was murdered, when travelling to Grozny. Professor Service commented; “The identity of the culprit was never discovered, but there was speculation that Kadyrov was exasperated by her exposures of the human rights abuses in his republic.”

In 2004, an Islamist guerrilla leader named Ibn Khattab was killed by a poisoned letter. Mr Goldfarb said that the FSB had claimed responsibility for this killing.

In the same year, the Russian public figure Roman Tsepov died in mysterious circumstances. Professor Service stated that Mr Tsepov: “was reliably said to have liaised between politicians and organised crime in St Petersburg and to have been close to Putin during his career in the city”. Mr Goldfarb described how it had been alleged that Mr Tsepov had died from radioactive poisoning, and that many of his symptoms – such as loss of hair and destruction of the immune system – had been similar to those suffered by Mr Litvinenko.

In the course of his oral evidence to me, Professor Dombey repeated an observation that he had previously made in an article in the London Review of Books. He said that, on the hypothesis that Mr Litvinenko had been deliberately poisoned with polonium 210 in a killing sponsored by the Russian State, it was reasonable to assume that the poison would have been tested on others in advance. Professor Dombey identified two cases that might indicate such testing. One was the case of Mr Tsepov, to which I have already referred. The other was the case of a Chechen man named Lecha Islamov. In the article to which I have referred, Professor Dombey had this to say about the Islamov case: “In April 2004, it was reported that Lecha Islamov, a Chechen guerrilla commander serving a nine-year prison sentence, had died after being admitted to hospital in Volgograd with a mysterious illness. ‘Sources close to the convict,’ ran a report in the Chechnya Weekly, ‘… suspect he may have been poisoned by Russia’s security agencies … Islamov’s symptoms – including hair loss and massive blisters – were said to be inexplicable to the doctors who have been trying to treat him.’ Islamov’s relatives said that he’d told them his jailers had summoned him several days before his death for an ‘informal conversation’, during which he was given a snack and some tea. ‘He began to feel ill within five minutes,’ they said, ‘as he was being taken back to his cell’.”

What do these cases show that may be of relevance to the circumstances of Mr Litvinenko’s death?

A note of caution should be sounded at the outset. As Professor Service observed, the evidence of Russian State involvement in most of these deaths is circumstantial. And even to the extent that Russian State involvement in any of these deaths is established, it plainly does not follow from involvement in those deaths that the Russian State was complicit in Mr Litvinenko’s death.

All that said, these cases appear to establish a pattern of events, which is of contextual importance to the circumstances of Mr Litvinenko’s death. These cases suggest that in the years prior to Mr Litvinenko’s death, the Russian State may have been involved in the assassination of Mr Putin’s critics; they suggest that those who were seeking to uncover the truth about the 1999 apartment bombings may have been targeted, and that living overseas may not have provided complete protection. Lastly, these cases suggest that the Russian State may have sponsored attacks against its opponents using poisons, including radioactive poisons.

I should make it clear that I have deliberately focused for these purposes on events in the few years immediately preceding November 2006, since those events have the strongest temporal relationship with Mr Litvinenko’s death. There have of course been other deaths since that of Mr Litvinenko, including the deaths in the UK of Mr Berezovsky and Mr Perepilichny and the shooting in Moscow of Boris Nemtsov, but for reasons of relevance and proportionality I did not hear detailed evidence about deaths and/or killings of Mr Putin’s opponents that took place after 2006.

That said, there is one event that took place in the summer of 2007 that I regard as being of potential significance to the circumstances of Mr Litvinenko’s death some months earlier.

I heard evidence from Mr Goldfarb and from Mr Zakayev that in June 2007 a Chechen named Movladi Atlangeriev came to the UK. Mr Goldfarb explained that Mr Atlangeriev had “a long association with the FSB” and that the Metropolitan Police Service possessed intelligence that he had come to the UK to assassinate Mr Berezovsky. He did indeed attempt to meet Mr Berezovsky, but was arrested and deported. It would appear that shortly after his return to Moscow, Mr Atlangeriev was kidnapped and killed, possibly by a rival Chechen faction. If the intelligence that the police are said to have received about Mr Atlangeriev was true, this event is evidence that at very much the time of Mr Litvinenko’s death, the FSB was prepared to arrange the assassination of leading opponents of the Putin regime in London.

It is also convenient at this point to return briefly to the information that Mr Scaramella received from Mr Limarev in October 2006, about which he wished to warn Mr Litvinenko when they met at itsu on 1 November 2006. I have previously referred to this matter.

Mr Scaramella stated that he received a series of warnings from Mr Limarev in late 2006. He believed that the information Mr Limarev passed to him came from sources in Russia, including serving intelligence officers. He said that at some stage prior to the murder of Ms Politkovskaya (which took place on 7 October 2006), Mr Limarev had told him about a list of “enemies” of Russia who were to be “eliminated”. Mr Scaramella said that the list had included Mr Berezovsky, Ms Politkovskaya, Mr Litvinenko, himself, Mr Guzzanti, Mr Gordievsky, Mr Zakayev and “probably even Bukovsky”. Mr Scaramella said that he had spoken to Mr Limarev either on the day of Ms Politkovskaya’s death or the day after that. Mr Limarev had told him that the killing of the “targets” on the list had started. Mr Limarev had also warned him that other individuals on the list might be poisoned with radioactive thallium, rather than being shot.

I am obviously not in a position to make any findings as to the precise source (or sources) of the information that Mr Limarev was receiving during this period, and which was then passed on first by Mr Limarev to Mr Scaramella and then by Mr Scaramella to others, including Mr Litvinenko. Nor am I able to make any firm findings as to whether there was a link between the information that Mr Limarev was receiving and any plans that were in fact being made at the time to murder Ms Politkovskaya and Mr Litvinenko – or indeed any others on the hit list.

What can be said, though, is that the warnings that Mr Limarev passed on to Mr Scaramella and, through him, to Mr Litvinenko, were entirely consistent with the points that can be drawn from the run of the cases that are described above. Leading opponents of President Putin, including those living outside Russia, were at risk of assassination. One of the risks they faced was that of being poisoned.

The mission of the Vimy Report is to inject new information that will raise the quality of public discussion on security and defence issues, to do so with impact, and thereby to educate and influence the ultimate decision-makers: citizens and their elected representatives.

Comments are closed.