A UK inquiry has concluded that the murder of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was “probably” approved by President Vladimir Putin. Retired High Court Judge Sir Robert Owen wrote that he was “sure” that two former Russian officials poisoned the 44-year-old at a London hotel with highly radioactive polonium-210. “The FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin,” Sir Robert Owen wrote (emphasis added). Nikolai Patrushev was head of the FSB in 2006.According to the report, Mr Litvinenko was poisoned with tea in 2006, and the detailed public inquiry has found that Mr Putin is likely to have signed off on the poisoning of the former KGB agent, in part due to personal ‘antagonism’ between the pair, it said. Litvinenko had been drinking tea at the Millennium hotel with former Kremlin bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi on the day he was poisoned, but Russia refused demands by British prosecutors in 2006 to extradite him. Lugovoi is now a member of the Russian parliament, in the far-right nationalist LDPR party. Responding to the report, Lugovoi, said the accusations against him were “absurd”, the Russian news agency Interfax was quoted as saying. “As we expected, there were no surprises,” he said. “The results of the investigation made public today yet again confirm London’s anti-Russian position, its blinkeredness and the unwillingness of the English to establish the true reason of Litvinenko’s death.” Kovtun, now a businessman in Russia, said he would not comment on the report until he got more information about its contents, Interfax reported.
Open hearings for the Litvinenko Inquiry started at the end of January, investigating his mysterious polonium-210 poisoning nearly a decade ago and were scheduled to last for about 10 weeks. The major focus of the inquiry has been the incrimination of Viktor Ivanov, the Director of The Federal Narcotics Service of Russia. As the inquiry heard closing arguments, the prosecution alleged that a report provided by Litvinenko to a security firm in 2006 before his murder made serious allegations against Ivanov, which could have served as a motive for the Kremlin to murder the former KGB officer by using a rare radioactive isotope. In response to the allegations, Ivanov told RT News, “It is clear that I cannot be the main target of this attack. These stones were thrown at the president of the Russian Federation, and this points us towards those who pulled the strings, certain Western political elites and their intelligence services. This is the level where there is no room for playing by the rules or delivering justice.”
Interestingly, the major international media services generally carry the story of the release of the public inquiry’s report as “Marina Litvinenko calls for sanctions against Russia,” and “Putin ‘probably’ ordered Litvinenko murder”. Speaking to the BBC Radio 4’s World at One program Marina Litvinenko welcomed the imposition of asset freezes on Lugovoi and Kovtum. Asked if Britain’s response was adequate she said: “Yes I believe so.” However, interjecting at the January 21 press conference in London to clarify ‘technical details’ of the case, British QC Ben Emmerson delivered a politically-charged monologue taking special care to clarify that this was a Russian state-sponsored attack “on the streets of London” and called it “a mini act of nuclear terrorism.” The UK Scottish National Party’s Peter Grant went much further with the anti-Russian rhetoric. “The report I think leads to only one possible conclusion – we now have to regard the Russian government, the Russian state as an organisation actively involved in the commission, funding, supporting and directing acts of terrorism against UK citizens within the United Kingdom,” he said.
The anti-Russian rhetoric we are seeing across the UK conservative press and political parties in the wake of the release of the report disturbingly pushes the issue far further to the right of the political spectrum and tears a massive hole in Anglo-Russian relations. The Guardian has gone as far as publishing text from a part of the report carrying an unverified account from a witness claiming Putin was a pedophile. In drawing an incredibly long bow, David Davis, who was shadow home secretary at the time of the murder, said the report meant that in a civil UK court Putin would be found guilty of complicity in murder. He said: “We need to go after the financial assets of Putin in the Bahamas and in Cyprus. Eventually you get to a point when with a dictator you have to draw a line as we did in the 30s.”
The public inquiry has drawn criticism from independent and research journalists and political commentators. ‘This man was killed, was murdered in London almost 10 years ago. This latest report was set up in July 2014 – interestingly, just a couple of weeks after the MH17 disaster. So it was set up in this particular climate, this anti-Russia climate, and it has gone on now for 18 months. And what have they come up with – they’ve come up with a verdict that ‘probably’ this was the work of the Kremlin. ‘Probably’ – is not evidence,” Journalist and broadcaster Neil Clark told RT. “What is lacking – is any hard evidence, this is just conjecture; this is just a theory put forward; one of the theories is that the Kremlin was behind this. But there are other theories too to explain why this man may have been murdered,” he said. “We’ve got to look at the context of this. The fact was this man died in 2006, and we’ve got an inquiry set up in 2014 in the very month when the West was taking very anti-Russian line.”
As the official coroner’s inquest into Litvinenko’s death was suspended in July 2014 to start a public inquiry shortly thereafter, the timing is interesting. The coroner’s inquest came to an end when the Home Secretary asked the coroner to stop conducting the inquest as a criminal investigation, clearly something outside the jurisdiction of the coroner. This changed again, however, when Prime Minister David Cameron turned Owen loose on a search for Russian state culpability by appointing him as chairman of the public inquiry. This pre-determined position was obvious from Emmerson’s repeated insistence during Marina Litvinenko’s press conference that the inquiry’s conclusions were primarily about linking the murder to the Russian government in what he was calling “acts of nuclear terrorism,” during a politically charged diatribe at the January 21 conference. Emmerson also attempted to frame the alleged assassination as a large-scale state sponsored operation, affecting hundreds of UK citizens in the immediate vicinity of the radioactive contaminants. He stopped short of calling it an act of war by Russia on Britain, but that implication was most definitely the elephant in the room.
It is interesting to note that the inquiry is in no way a trial or judicial procedure, but simply a public inquiry. The term ‘public inquiry’ is actually a misnomer, because the rules in the UK allow a public inquiry to be conducted behind closed doors. Martin McCauley, former senior lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London said, “All they can do, as they said, ‘we have a prima facie case which proves that Lugovoy and Kovtun were acting as part of the FSB,’ which goes right up to Nikolai Patrushev. But prima facie only means on the face of it. Therefore, the case is not proven. In other words it is a probability, and in an English court it wouldn’t stand up, because you couldn’t convict Lugovoy and Kovtun on the evidence, which has been presented in the report… They didn’t cross-examine or interview Lugovoy or Kovtun…”
Cameron’s UK Conservative party has shown its anti-Russian stance as it shifted the coronial inquest to a public inquiry in order to allow a greater media exposure to what were clearly pre-determined findings of Russian state culpability. The call for further political action through sanctions belies the motivation for setting up such an enquiry, with the Litvinenko case a prime candidate for the task. Since 2008 Cameron has adopted a more robust, anti-Russian stance than the rest of the UK government has. He called for Russia to be suspended from membership of the G8 group of industrialised nations and for Georgia’s entry into NATO to be brought forward. Cameron’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin was initially cordial but soured over the annexation of Crimea by Russian-backed forces in early 2014. During the initial stages of the crisis, Cameron telephoned Putin to inform him that “Your relationship with us will face increasing difficulties unless you stop the aggression.” Shortly before the 2015 UK elections, even Labour candidate Ed Miliband called for tougher anti-Russian sanctions, if Russia, in his opinion, would continue its actions in aggravating the situation in eastern Ukraine. However, it is obvious that the Conservatives are toughest when it comes to evaluation of the Kremlin’s “Ukrainian policy.” In this case, these are exclusively geopolitical motives. The Russian senator noted that unlike other major European Union states, such as Germany and France, the United Kingdom has always taken a harsh approach to Russia. “In the British approach [toward Russia] there is no evidence of any further analysis, no rethink of what is happening in Europe on the whole, or with Ukraine, or the Russian Federation. The British approaches are extremely conservative and that is why I don’t expect any changes for the better from the point of view of Russian interests here,” Kosachev told RIA Novosti.
With the Conservative Party securing a majority of 330 seats in the parliament, the current harsh stance adopted by the United Kingdom toward Russia is highly likely to remain unchanged.