Global Independent Analytics
Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan

Location: Ireland

Specialization: US foreign policy, US-Russia relations and media bias

Litvinenko inquiry: British judge reading polonium tea leaves?

The full mystery surrounding the murder of Alexander Litvinenko has not been solved — although, you’d never guess it had you been reading headlines in the UK last week.

The whys and hows of Litvinenko’s story are impossible to fully unravel. The muddy world of intelligence makes it so. What we know at least, is that he was an agent of Russia’s FSB intelligence agency and had switched his loyalties to Britain’s MI6. But the public inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder was politically motivated from the outset, had little to do with justice and its results should leave any fair observer more than a little bit skeptical.

The conclusion reached by the inquiry headed by British Judge Robert Owen is that Litvinenko was murdered by two Russian agents Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, who in 2006, slipped a lethal dose of polonium into his tea in a London hotel — and that the murder was “probably approved” by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

‘Probably’ is not evidence

The British version of the story makes for some dramatic headlines, perfectly convenient to bolster the Western narrative of Putin as an evil Bond villain, busily plotting the deaths of enemies far and wide — but there are too many interesting details and questions unanswered to treat Litvinenko’s death as a closed case.

First, the obvious. Had there been any hard evidence to support Owen’s claim that Putin ordered Litvinenko’s murder, the word “probably” would not have made an appearance in the final report. The inquiry gets around that by pointing to the “strong circumstantial” evidence against the Russian state, much of which was conveniently “secret” and not heard in open court. In other words, Owen has no evidence, he has a theory — and the theory is simply one of many.

Second, the timing. Litvinenko was killed ten years ago, but after years of putting it off, the public inquiry into his death was launched mere days after flight MH17 was downed over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014 — the very month that relations between Russia and the West were taking their biggest nosedive in years. This timing can’t be overlooked if one is trying to understand the political motivations behind the inquiry.

Third, the logistics. In 2006, relations between Russia and Britain were a far-sight better than they are today. The Litvinenko murder soured the relationship considerably. The idea that the Kremlin would have risked the deterioration of good relations by ordering the murder of this man in such a public and convoluted fashion is, of course, not impossible, but questionable. The use of polonium, which left a radioactive trail in 12 different locations, is a rather baffling way to go about murdering someone. Had Litvinenko simply been shot, for example, he wouldn’t have been given the opportunity in his last days to theorize from his hospital bed on all the reasons Putin supposedly wanted him dead.

Taking the above information into proper account, we could easily conclude that, whatever the truth may be, the Litvinenko inquiry was used as a tool to put pressure on Moscow over the situation unfolding in Ukraine. But there’s more to be skeptical about than some odd timing, questionable logistics and lack of evidence.

Blackmail and smuggling

Litvinenko’s own dealings received little attention in the British and Western press last week. But in 2006, the Guardian detailed Litvinenko’s plan to make thousands of pounds by blackmailing a number of Russian spies and business figures — something which no doubt left him with more than one powerful enemy.

Another Guardian report that year stated that a theory which remained open was that Litvinenko had been poisoned while he tried “to assemble a dirty bomb for Chechen rebels” and that those who knew him “believe he was crazy enough to attempt such a thing”. The report also noted that Litvinenko had been “implicated” in the smuggling of nuclear materials from Russia, which he apparently confirmed to an Italian academic on the day he fell ill in London.

Conflicting accounts

Litvinenko’s wife Marina believes, as he did himself, that Putin was responsible for his murder. He also believed, however, that Putin was responsible for numerous terror attacks and that he is a pedophile, which of course, is a fairly conspiratorial view, but nothing very new. Putin has at various intervals been accused of: hiding various forms of cancer, being gay, stealing and hiding the disappeared Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in Kazakhstan, being secretly married to a former Olympic gymnast, and being the father of at least two of her secret children. In that context, some wild allegations that he is a pedophile aren’t too big a leap.

In contrast to his wife’s view, Litvinenko’s brother Maxim has called the British report into the murder a “set-up” designed to level even more “bad publicity” against the Kremlin and said that he and his father have no faith in the inquiry. Maxim Litvinenko went as far as to say that Britain had more of a reason to kill his brother than the Kremlin. In 2012, Litvinenko’s father, who had originally accused the Russian government, claimed that he in fact now believed his son was killed by his former boss, Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian tycoon found guilty of embezzlement.

We’re always the good guys

Many in the West are inclined to instantly believe any story involving evil Russian spies, but are more reluctant to believe that their own governments and intelligence agencies could stoop to the same level. The constant Western refrain is that ‘we’re the good guys’ and anything bad we might ever do is all in some noble effort to stop the ‘bad guys’ from doing something even worse. It’s simplistic and hypocritical to anyone paying attention, but it works.

Take, for example, the conclusion reached over the death of MI6 operative Gareth Williams in 2010, which one analyst noted was “so outlandish you wouldn’t find it in the pages of a bad spy novel”. Williams’ body was found inside a duffel bag which had been padlocked from the outside — but, we were told, Williams most likely had locked himself into the bag and as such, his death was not suspicious.

It was noted by another analyst that while it took ten years for Britain to complete their politically-charged probe into Litvinenko’s death, that’s nothing compared to the 26 years it has been since the murder of Irish civil rights lawyer Pat Finucane. It has been “strongly suspected” that Margaret Thatcher — since we’re using the word — “probably” sanctioned that murder. But still no inquiry.

Could the Kremlin have killed Litvinenko and paid off his family for some positive coverage? It’s certainly not impossible. Are there a number of competing theories and motives for murder? Absolutely. But any theory that doesn’t involve Putin has been pushed by the wayside to make room for headlines screaming about the ‘killer in the Kremlin’. As usual, the British press, so free and mighty, has decided there’s not much point in questioning the official line.

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