The Magazine

Putin, in London, with Poison

Who killed Alexander Litvinenko?

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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Among the thousands of customers at the Piccadilly branch of their restaurant in recent weeks, there had not been a single instance of illness. That's what Itsu's website was reporting last week--"with the exception," Itsu noted parenthetically, "of Mr. Litvinenko." Alexander Litvinenko was the ex-KGB man who, after dining at the London sushi restaurant on November 1, fell ill, lost his hair, and died.

I passed by Itsu a couple days ago. It's down the street from the famous tea shop Fortnum and Mason. There wasn't much to see, as the place had been boarded up by the time I arrived. At the Millennium Hotel at Grosvenor Square, on the other hand, the lobby was bustling. There was seasonal music. Staff members were putting up Christmas trees. It was late afternoon and the bar was full. "Be careful what you eat in there," my cab driver had advised.

This is another location where British investigators suspect Litvinenko might have been poisoned. Authorities may be reluctant to call it a murder investigation--it's still classified as an "unexplained death" as we go to press--but it does not seem unreasonable to suspect foul play. Litvinenko apparently ingested or inhaled polonium-210, a radioactive material that emits highly hazardous alpha particles. It is considerably stronger than cyanide and in the right dosage quickly damages tissues and organs. The British tabloid the Sun calls it a case of "From Russia with Lunch."

By now everybody has his own theory about Litvinenko's sudden death. Since I arrived in London, police have found traces of polonium-210 at 12 different locations including two British Airways planes. As authorities continue to collect clues, it is already evident that observers of the case tend to fall into one of two camps.

To the first camp belong those who see Russian president Vladimir Putin and Moscow's security services as prime suspects. The 43-year-old Litvinenko, a onetime colonel in the FSB, the KGB's successor organization, was a fierce critic of Putin's. Litvinenko fled to Britain in November 2000 after claiming that he had been ordered by superiors to assassinate exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Since that time, the former agent, who had begun to work for Berezovsky in Britain, never stopped being a thorn in the Kremlin's side.

At the time of his death, Litvinenko was investigating the murder of another Putin critic, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose body was found in October in the elevator of her apartment building in central Moscow. She had been shot four times, including once in the head, in what appeared to be a contract killing. In 2002 Litvinenko coauthored a book (with pal Yuri Felshtinsky) titled Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within, in which he argued that Putin was behind the 1999 blasts in apartment blocks in Moscow that killed 300 and were blamed on Chechen separatists. The incident triggered the second Chechen war and helped to propel Putin into office.

The logic driving "Camp I" seems compelling. Putin's regime has engaged in a fairly robust crackdown on independent journalists, trouble-making NGOs, and other critics the last few years. This past summer the Russian parliament, the Duma, passed legislation granting the government authority to take action through the use of "special forces" against enemies of the state abroad.

If Putin himself was not directly involved in signing the order to eliminate Litvinenko, it is not difficult to imagine that FSB agents, perhaps with the Kremlin's tacit approval, wanted to liquidate him. Artemy Troitsky, one of Russia's leading music and cultural journalists, considers this a plausible scenario. Troitsky writes in the current issue of the New Statesman that "the FSB . . . considers punishing traitors a basic principle." I phoned ex-dissident Natan Sharansky at his home in Jerusalem earlier this week to chat about the case and see what he thinks. Sharansky concurs. If the Russian security services were behind this, he told me, then "this was about discipline."

There is a second camp, though. To this camp belong those who espouse a hodgepodge of theories, from the speculation that Litvinenko was a victim of rival Chechen factions to the assertion peddled by Kremlin circles and Russian media that Berezovsky himself was behind his employee's death. According to this theory, Berezovsky had Litvinenko killed so that the Kremlin would be implicated and Putin's image would be dealt a vicious blow.

A variation on this theme has been introduced by the Independent. The paper has suggested that Litvinenko may have killed himself, convinced that Putin would be suspected of ordering the hit. From his death bed at University College Hospital, Litvinenko explicitly accused Putin of the poisoning.

There are a few voices hinting that Litvinenko was killed by his friend Mario Scaramella, an Italian security consultant with whom he lunched at Itsu on November 1. Scaramella is said to have brought to lunch that day a hit list with the names of Kremlin targets, including his own name and Litvinenko's. To complicate this theory, Scaramella has since tested positive for polonium-210.

There are some in Camp II--let's call it the anyone-but-Moscow camp--who seem hellbent on keeping Putin out of this. In truth, if Litvinenko's death is traced to Moscow, we all have a problem.

George W. Bush once gazed into Putin's eyes and saw sincerity and a good soul. Meanwhile, our less sentimental European friends have been busy investing heavily in an ever expanding energy relationship with the Russians. The E.U. now relies on Russia for 25 percent of its gas, a figure estimated to rise to nearly 70 percent in the next 15 years. Germany is leading the way. Former chancellor Gerhard Schröder now serves as chairman of Nord Stream, a joint venture linked to Russia's state-controlled energy giant Gazprom, which is overseeing the construction of a new Russian pipeline that will supply Germany through the Baltic Sea.

Some circles would find it exceedingly inconvenient to read headlines confirming that Russia is now in the business of wiping out critics in Western capitals. The Süd deutsche Zeitung likes the Berezovsky-as-villain theory. Berlin's well-respected Inforadio just aired an interview with a former head of German intelligence, Heribert Hellenbroich, who leans in the same direction.

Hellenbroich insists that Moscow could not have been involved in Litvinenko's death. The method was too unusual, the hit too indiscreet. Talk about unusual. Inforadio neglected to mention to listeners that Hellenbroich was head of West German intelligence a while ago--21 years to be exact--and that he managed to keep his job for only four weeks before being forced to resign when one of his top aides defected to East Berlin.

The whole mystery surrounding Litvinenko's death is probably ultimately beside the point. Does it really matter who killed him? A British journalist friend thinks this will be a tipping point if it turns out Putin is the culprit. If the Russians are running around wiping out dissidents like this, can it still be okay that Putin gets invited to Jacques Chirac's birthday parties and Russia gets to chair G 8 meetings?

I worry about two things. The first is something Sharansky told me this week. If the Kremlin sponsored Litvinenko's murder, then Putin would have calculated a good dose of Western indignation into his cost-benefit analysis. "Putin knows the West," says Sharansky. "He probably figures the indignation will pass." Sadly, Sharansky may be right. The U.N. has essentially concluded that the Syrians assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and the fact hasn't made one iota of difference for Western policy.

The other thing that bothers me is why we would need a tipping point in the first place. Haven't we already learned enough these past few years to know that Russia is heading in the wrong direction?

Jeffrey Gedmin is director of the Aspen Institute Berlin and a columnist for Die Welt.