Remember Alexander Litvinenko? The British certainly do. The former KGB operative-turned-Putin dissenter died of acute polonium poisoning, in what was not only an assassination but one meant to look like an assassination. His 2006 murder by way of a rare radioactive isotope has been described as the first nuclear attack on the UK. Litvinenko, who died relatively slowly and horribly, blamed Vladimir Putin for ordering his death, declaring “You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.”
Today, almost ten years later, a British inquiry agreed:
Russian President Vladimir Putin likely approved the fatal poisoning of a former KGB operative-turned-British intelligence agent at a post London hotel, according to a highly anticipated British inquiry released Thursday.
The findings — nearly a decade after Alexander Litvinenko succumbed to the effects of the radioactive polonium slipped into his cup of green tea at London’s Millennium Hotel — is sure to raise tensions between London and Moscow and possibly sharpen the focus on other suspicious deaths among Putin’s foes. …
The inquiry’s findings, set out over 328 pages, include that Putin had a personal motive for wanting Litvinenko dead, and that the president would likely have had to approve a high-stakes operation to assassinate the former KGB operative on British soil.
The assassination has been described by a British Parliamentary committee as “a miniature nuclear attack on the streets of London.”
At the time, I wrote about the parallels to the dioxin poisoning of Ukraine political dissenter Viktor Yushchenko, and the use of polonium as a deliberate signal of both origin and intent:
For those who recall the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, this may sound somewhat familiar. Viktor Yushchenko got a severe case of dioxin poisoning, narrowly avoiding death but suffering facial disfigurement. Yushchenko had promoted a pro-Western polity for Ukraine, wanting to de-emphasize Russian ties and separate the former Soviet republic from Moscow and Putin. He survived, but clearly he was not meant to do so. In Litvinenko’s case, his assassins made sure they did the job right.
The use of polonium strongly indicts the Russian government in this murder. One does not find polonium just laying around somewhere; it’s rather rare, and difficult to produce in any quantity. However, small quantities are all that are needed for poisoning someone, as the maximum safe ingested dose is 0.03 microcurie. It’s 25 billion times more poisonous than hydrocyanic acid. Anyone who attempted to deploy this as an assassin’s weapon has to have a lot of expertise in handling polonium — which again strongly indicates a government assassin at work. It practically convicts Putin by its use.
Litvinenko’s son emphasized this point today in an interview with Sky News:
The son of murdered spy Alexander Litvinenko has told Sky News he believes his father’s killers are being protected by the Russian state.
Anatoly Litvinenko spoke as the findings of a public inquiry into the murder nine years ago are set to be published.
“It was an extremely complex murder, using an extremely complex murder weapon,” he said.
“The killers were protected by the Russian state. It was always going to be a slow and difficult case.”
The case wasn’t difficult to crack. The difficulty comes in what follows this finding. Prime Minister David Cameron faces pressure to act against Putin, but it comes at a most sensitive juncture:
Moscow branded the process “politically motivated” and “absurd”, while the Government responded by summoning the Russian ambassador and announcing that the two men who allegedly carried out the killing – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun – would have their assets frozen.
However, the barrister for the Litvinenko family warned it would be “craven” if the Prime Minister avoided substantial reprisals for “nuclear terrorism” due to diplomatic considerations over crises in Syria and Ukraine. …
In a statement to MPs, Home Secretary Theresa May said Mr Cameron would raise the issue with Mr Putin at the “first available opportunity”.
“This was a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and civilised behaviour. But we have to accept that this doesn’t come as a surprise,” she said.
Unfortunately, Western dithering in Syria and Iraq has since made Putin a key player against ISIS. Putin is using that leverage to reshape Syria into Bashar al-Assad’s fiefdom, but Putin is also going after ISIS targets at a lower priority. The US and UK may not be able to afford to alienate Putin; clearly, they haven’t been able to stop him from empire-building in Ukraine and in the Caucasus, let alone the Middle East. Cameron may have to settle for personal sanctions that will save a little face but do next to nothing to Putin or his ambitions.
At least no one can say Litvinenko didn’t warn us. Too bad two successive British and American administrations didn’t listen.