A highly anticipated British inquiry into the 2006 killing of Russian Alexander Litvinenko has reached a remarkable conclusion: Russian President Vladimir Putin likely approved the poisoning of the former KGB operative, who died after radioactive polonium was slipped into his cup of green tea at London’s Millennium Hotel.
If the Kremlin is really behind Litvinenko’s death, it’s worth asking a big question: Why? Why would Putin approve such an aggressive and risky act on a foreign nation’s soil? What had Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer who was a British citizen at the time of his death, done that merited his assassination?
In the inquiry’s final report, some potential clues can be found.
Litvinenko claimed to be revealing Russian secrets.
Litvinenko had worked for the KGB during the final years of the Soviet Union, and after the Soviet Union collapsed, he worked for its Russian successor organizations, the FSK and then the FSB. He would later claim that the FSB ordered him to kill Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and after he went public with allegations about the FSB in November 1998, he was dismissed from the agency.
Litvinenko would later flee Russia and end up in Britain, where he put his knowledge of the Russian security world to work. While in Britain, he wrote books that accused the FSB of corruption.
One notable book, Blowing Up Russia, suggested that the agency was behind a series of apartment bombings in September 1999 that had killed more than 300 people. These bombings had been blamed on Chechen separatists and were a key rationale for Russia engaging in the Second Chechen War — a war that clearly helped the popularity of Putin, prime minister at the time of the bombings.
Litvinenko’s book presented the argument that the bombings were a “false flag” that killed ordinary Russians for political purposes — something that would create incredible anger in Russia if ever proved.
A second book, The Gang from the Lubyanka, accused the FSB and Putin, former head of the agency, of criminal acts.
He was working with Putin’s rivals and critics.
While Litvinenko’s billionaire ally Berezovsky was once a key supporter of Putin, the two had fallen out when Putin rose to become president. Facing investigation in Russia, he had fled to Britain and was granted asylum in 2003. Berezovsky became a key supporter of Litvinenko’s whistleblowing projects and funded him and other Putin critics with his own sizable fortune.
Litvinenko was linked to a number of foreign intelligence agencies while living in London. The inquiry did not find conclusive evidence on whether the Russian was working with the British intelligence agencies, but it is clear the FSB believed he was.
In particular, the inquiry’s report notes that Berezovsky’s declining financial support of Litvinenko had led the former spy to look to private security work for funding. This work would often involve writing “due diligence” reports on Russian individuals and enterprises. The inquiry found evidence that Litvinenko had been asked to investigate a senior Russian politician named Victor Ivanov. Litvinenko eventually produced a report that was described as “extremely damaging,” portraying the former KGB operative Ivanov as a “failure.”
A personal antagonism with Putin.
Another notable detail from the inquiry is what appears to be a personal side to Litvinenko’s dispute with Putin. Putin was head of the FSB when Litvinenko tried to raise issues about the way the agency was operating. The two men are believed to have met in person.
Putin, a former KGB man himself, is believed to have viewed Litvinenko’s attempts at whistleblowing as a breach of the FSB code of loyalty. This view was widely shared in the FSB, the inquiry found.
After Litvinenko fled to Britain, he accused Putin of personal involvement in a whole range of criminal activities. These weren’t limited to bribery or even plots like the alleged FSB apartment bombings — in July 2006, Litvinenko had accused Putin of being a pedophile and claimed that the FSB had secretly filmed him having sex with underage boys.
The inquiry’s report notes that there was “undoubtedly a personal dimension to the antagonism” between Putin and Litvinenko, both due to Litvinenko’s perceived betrayal of the FSB and the allegations made about Putin himself.
The Washington Post