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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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.