The probable poisoning of a Russian ex-spy
Evening Standard – November 20, 2006
The apparent poisoning of exiled Russian ex-secret service man Alexander Litvinenko inLondon has plunged this country into a frenzy of speculation. The Kremlin is keeping quiet as its various enemies trade charges of murderous dirty tricks through the British media.
While Litvinenko is treated at University College Hospital in North London, his friends, who include the oligarch Boris Berezovsky (also exiled in London after falling out with the Kremlin), say he was poisoned with thallium, the KGB’s exotic poison drug of choice. They believe three times the fatal dose of drug was administered at about the time Litvinenko met an Italian spycatcher at an Itsu sushi bar to discuss the assassination of a Russian woman journalist in Moscow earlier this autumn. They see the Kremlin as being behind the murder attempt (as well as being behind the killing of the journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, the most articulate critic of Kremlin policies in Russia and Chechnya).
Meanwhile, Oleg Gordievsky, the most senior Soviet KGB agent to defect to Britain and a friend of Litvinenko, has a different but equally eye-popping theory. He also believes that Litvinenko was poisoned by the Kremlin. But he says that Mario Scaramella, the Italian consultant for a commission investigating the activities of the post-Soviet secret police – known nowadays as the Federal Security Service (or FSB if you prefer its Russian initials) – had nothing to do with it. Instead, he is fingering an unnamed Russian. This man, according to Gordievsky, was a former associate of Berezovsky. He’d been imprisoned in Moscow, then recruited secretly in prison by the FSB. He then showed up in London, met Litvinenko at a hotel, and put poison in his tea before Litvinenko met the Italian for lunch.
Exotic KGB murders have been part of London’s folk memory ever since Georgy Markov, a defecting Bulgarian diplomat, was killed by the KGB on Waterloo Bridge in 1978 while waiting for a bus. The assassin, from the Bulgarian secret services, didn’t simply push Markov under the bus. He used a far more complicated murder method involving an umbrella – adapted for murder – and prodded a poison pellet containing ricin into Markov’s body with its tip.
Bewildered Londoners are now naturally wondering: has the mass immigration of rich and quarrelsome Russians to this city since 2000 also brought James Bond-style murder to our doors?
These are just the latest in a series of poisonings and shootings and helicopter accidents that have afflicted the enemies of the Kremlin in recent years. Before she was shot by a gunman outside her flat in October, Politkovskaya said in 2004 that she’d been poisoned by the FSB on a plane south to the borders of Chechnya. The Englishman who ran Yukos after another oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, fell foul of Putin, died in a helicopter crash in 2004.
Like the media uproar over the apparent poisoning of Ukraine’s pro-Western presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko two years ago – widely blamed on pro-Russian secret services – the current crop of accusations lead only in one direction. They are veiled attempts to point the finger at the President of Russia himself. Before Vladimir Putin took over running Russia, his job was running the FSB.
There is a rival explanation, however, which might suit sceptical British minds better.
Litvinenko was considered a traitor in Russia because he had (a) defected from his country and fled his job at the FSB (he says after being ordered to assassinate Berezovsky after Putin fell out with the oligarch) (b) joined forces with Berezovsky in London and and (c) written a book called “Blowing Up Russia”. In this book, he accused Putin of exploding several apartment blocks around Russia in the autumn of 1999, killing hundreds of people but blaming the attacks on Chechen terrorists, and using the killings as a pretext for a new war in Chechnya. In the feverishly anti-Chechen atmosphere of that autumn, the explosions and president-in-waiting Putin’s decisive move back to war won Russian hearts and won Putin the presidency the following spring.
Sceptics have been quick to blame Berezovsky for being the eminence grise who’s stirring up resentment of Putin with elaborate poisoning stories. He certainly bankrolls a motley crew of Putin enemies in London (including Litvinenko), and is adept at getting media coverage for his point of view. But it goes against the grain to think that one man, exiled, with his fortune diminished by his political reverses, would poison a man who’s been a friend and colleague for the past five years. Even if he had, it wouldn’t explain all the other stories of traditional KGB dirty tricks that have come out of Russia since Putin came to power. Look before you leap: it’s never wise to believe the most obvious interpretation when looking at the Byzantine internal politics of Russia.