Andrew Osborn








Who killed Alexander Litvinenko?

The Sunday Herald, 2nd December 2006 17:01

by Andrew Osborn in Moscow

Who poisoned former Russian counter-intelligence operative Alexander Litvinenko?

It is a question that has been posed hundreds of times in the past two weeks as the veil on his extraordinary

life and death has slowly been lifted. As this sensational Cold War-style story goes into its

third week leading TV news bulletins, cast-iron facts remain thin on the ground though and each new twist in

the story appears to throw up more questions than answers.

In Russia, Kremlin officials have slammed the UK media coverage of the unfolding drama as “hysterical” and

watched with dismay as the country’s image has taken a nosedive on the international stage on what they say

is little more than empty speculation. “Would Tony Blair be accused of murder if one of his

critics happened to die in Moscow?” said one senior Kremlin source. “It’s ludicrous.”

Regardless of what the ‘truth’ in this murky affair turns out to be, there is a feeling in Russia that the

UK public has had the wool pulled over it eyes. That is debatable but what is undeniable and widely

unknown in the UK is that media coverage of Mr Litvinenko’s awful illness and his subsequent demise

has, to a large extent, been carefully orchestrated by a group of people with an axe to grind.

As such, from the outset, the public was encouraged to entertain only one possibility – that President

Vladimir Putin, a former spy himself, was behind the mysterious poisoning of a man he considered a traitor.

Such a theory appeared to fit in with everything we know about Russia in 2006  -- that freedom of the

media is a scarce commodity, that there has been an alarming upsurge in contract killings, and that Mr

Putin is increasingly authoritarian and tolerates little or no political opposition.

It was therefore an easy leap to assume that he had dispatched a group of killers to take care of a

troublesome émigré living in London. This widely accepted ‘Putin/the Kremlin did it’ theory

may turn out to have been right all along but for the time being it is worth noting that there is little

evidence beyond the circumstantial to support it. What anyone interested in this Machiavellian tale of

poisoning and spooks should also know is that one man, a sworn enemy of Mr Putin, has almost single-handedly

ensured that the UK media have given pre-eminence to the ‘Putin did it’ theory.

That man is UK-based oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a businessman estimated to be worth 540m pounds who was

granted political asylum in the UK in 2001. It was his right-hand man, Alex Goldfarb, who “did a

deal” with a national newspaper to provide an exclusive bedside interview with the dying Litvinenko

creating a media feeding frenzy around the story in the first place.

It was the same Mr Goldfarb who persuaded an eminent London toxicologist to stand up on national TV and say

that Mr Litvinenko had been poisoned with thallium, a claim that later turned out to be false but gave the

story ‘fresh legs.’ Never mind that the toxicologist was not actually

treating Mr Litvinenko and had not examined his hospital records.

And it was Mr Berezovsky’s retained public relations agency, Bell-Pottinger, who distributed an image that

has come to define this complicated story – that of the emaciated hairless dying Mr Litvinenko on his

deathbed.  The timing of the picture’s release was ‘fortuitous’

for the anti-Putin camp; it was put out on the day that Mr Putin made his first and only public rebuttal

of allegations that the Kremlin was somehow implicated.

A decent picture is worth a thousand words and the picture relegated Mr Putin’s denial to a few lines

buried towards the end of most news stories the following day.       

It was also the same Berezovsky aide, Mr Goldfarb, who promulgated the ‘Putin did it’ line remorselessly to

journalists who were apparently unaware of his own background, that of Mr Litvinenko, and more

importantly that of Mr Berezovsky. Yet what anyone who knows anything about Russia knows

is that the past five years of Mr Berezovsky’s life have been dedicated to toppling Mr Putin and seeing to

it that a “democratic” government comes to power. At his side has been Mr Goldfarb.

Sixty year-old Mr Berezovsky has fought Mr Putin on various ‘battlegrounds;’ he helped finance Ukraine’s

‘anti-Putin’ Orange revolution in 2004, he has taken out full page adverts in the UK media aimed at

discrediting the Russian leader, he has fought Moscow’s attempts to extradite him back to Russia on

fraud charges through the London courts, and he has accused the Kremlin of trying to murder him with a

poisoned fountain pen. This then is a man with an agenda who deserves to be

listened to but in the knowledge that he has his own unique reasons for wanting to bring down Mr Putin.

For some reason that crucial piece of background has been left out of most accounts of Mr Litvinenko’s

demise.   It is also no exaggeration to say that the late Mr

Litvinenko ‘belonged’ to Mr Berezovsky. His London home was owned by him, he took financial

payments from him for years to help him settle in the UK as a political refugee, he produced anti-Putin

films and books with his patron’s money, he fled Russia in 2000 with Mr Berezovsky’s help, and he was

described as a close friend and adviser right up to his tragic death.

The idea that Mr Litvinenko was some high-profile Kremlin foe also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In

Russia, until his awful death, his name was unknown to the general public, and most of his anti-Putin

invective appeared on a Chechen separatist website therefore making little impact.

He was also suffering from a serious credibility problem due to a series of sensational but

unsubstantiated and sometimes far-fetched ‘revelations’ in the past.

Among those were allegations that Mr Putin was a paedophile and that the Beslan school siege terrorists

were working for Russia’s FSB security service.  This then is not a simple convenient tale of good

versus evil but a more complex tangled web of power relationships involving geo-politics, Russia’s murky

spy world, Chechen separatism, and a millionaire with a grudge.

These then are the main theories being discussed in both Russia and the UK:


1)    Litvinenko was assassinated by a death squad made

up of former or serving FSB (KGB) officers out to

exact revenge for his ‘betrayal.’  There is certainly

no shortage of reasons why his former employers, the

FSB, would want him dead. In 1998 he claimed that his

FSB bosses had ordered him to assassinate none other

than Boris Berezovsky but that he refused. Over the

years he has levelled a number of serious charges

against his former spymasters including writing a book

alleging that the security service blew up apartment

blocks in Moscow and elsewhere in 1999 killing

hundreds of innocents and then framed Chechen

separatists for the crime. He has also suggested that

Al-Qaida’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a former

KGB agent. The SVR, Russia’s equivalent of MI6, is

known to take out enemies living abroad (like just

about every single intelligence service in the world)

and there is also speculation that Moscow may contract

out such ‘dirty’ operations to SVR veterans. Mario

Scaramella, the Italian contact he met on the day he

was poisoned, allegedly told him his name was on an

FSB hit list.     


2) He was ‘martyred,’ either knowingly or unknowingly,

in a Machiavellian plot to besmirch Russia and

President Vladimir Putin. Plotter-in-chief: UK-based

oligarch Boris Berezovsky. This unsurprisingly is a

version favoured in official Kremlin circles. The idea

is that Russia is chair of the G8 group of nations

this year for the first time and has spent millions on

improving its image. In July Mr Putin was credited

with having pulled off a PR coup at his St Petersburg

G8 summit. That and a general acceptance of Russia as

a serious player on the world arena doesn’t suit Mr

Berezovsky, this version goes, and he would do

anything to show the world that Putin is the sinister

dictator he makes him out to be.     


3) He was ‘rubbed out’ by his ‘boss’ UK-based oligarch

Boris Berezovsky because he was preparing to or had

already sold compromising information on him to Moscow

that would help the Kremlin extradite him. Moscow has

long been desperate to extradite Mr Berezovsky back to

Russia but British courts have refused past requests

on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial

(on alleged fraud charges). In order to persuade the

UK, the Kremlin needs a conclusive piece of evidence.

This version suggests Mr Litvinenko may have been

willing to sell out his patron to Moscow making his

elimination a priority for Mr Berezovsky.   


4) He was deliberately and unknowingly turned into a

walking ‘dirty bomb’ by Russian hardliners and was not

the ultimate target. Instead, by close contact, he was

supposed to irradiate or poison Russia’s two greatest

enemies on UK soil: UK-based oligarch Boris Berezovsky

and Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev. This version

suggests that Mr Litvinenko was too minor a character

to warrant assassination but that his close and

regular contact with Mr Berezovsky and Mr Zakayev made

him an ideal receptacle for a deadly dose of polonium

to be passed on to them.   


5) He was bumped off by his Russian business partners

because he tried to blackmail them, became too greedy,

or simply double-crossed them.  Settling business

disputes by murdering an ‘awkward’ partner is common

currency in Russia. On the day he was poisoned Mr

Litvinenko met two Russian business partners in a

London hotel. He was acting as a middleman between

them and unnamed British companies interested in

investing in Russia. The two businessmen from Russia

run a security company in Moscow and, like Mr

Litvinenko, come from an FSB background. Mr Litvinenko

received payments from them each time he ‘introduced’

them to potential clients. Did they fall out? 


6) He was involved in an illicit international trade

smuggling nuclear materials and became exposed to

polonium 210 by accident. This theory, being peddled

by the Russian media, has it that he must have come

into contact with a dirty bomb, possibly intended to

be passed to Chechen separatist rebels.


7) He committed suicide, perhaps because he was

terminally ill anyway, and did it in such a way that

suspicion would fall on his enemies. A popular theory

in Russia.     


8) He was a double agent working for MI6 and the SVR

Russian overseas intelligence service at the same time

but his cover was blown and the SVR decided to take

him out before he did any more damage. 


9) His murder was orchestrated by shadowy political

forces within Russia who want to create an atmosphere

of crisis to pave the way for hardliners to seize

control of the Kremlin. Or to justify Vladimir Putin

standing for a third consecutive (unconstitutional)

presidential term in 2008 as the strongman who can

restore order and stability. Mr Putin is due to step

down in 2008 but there are many who want him to stay

on and are reportedly looking for a pretext to ensure

he does. 


10) He was killed because of what he knew, either

about the recent murder in Moscow of investigative

journalist Anna Politkovskaya or about Russia’s

allegedly ‘dirty’ campaign to destroy oligarch Mikhail

Khodorkovsky’s oil firm Yukos.  The meeting he had on

the day he was poisoned with Mr Scaramella saw him

handed a list of Russian intelligence officers

allegedly involved in the murder of Ms Politkovskaya.

He is also known to have flown to Israel before his

death and met with anti-Putin oligarch Leonid Nevzlin

to whom he handed a thick dossier detailing what he

said was a ‘dirty’ campaign by the Kremlin to ‘get rid

of’ senior figures in Yukos, the oil company once run

by anti-Putin oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.