Andrew Osborn








Vladimir Putin will secretly be revelling in the WikiLeaks scrap, 2nd December 2010 17:05

By Andrew Osborn

Vladimir Putin won’t be shaken by news that a US diplomat believes he knew about the operation to murder Alexander Litvinenko in London before it happened.

The claim, made in one of the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, merely echoes an allegation that has been made on and off with much greater force by the late Mr Litvinenko’s friends and widow for the last four years. In fact, for them it does not go far enough. They believe that Mr Putin not only knew about the murder plot but sanctioned it and sent a hit squad to eliminate Mr Litvinenko who had long been considered a traitor by elements in Russia’s security services.

Ever since the former FSB agent turned Kremlin foe died an agonising death in 2006 after drinking a cup of tea laced with deadly radioactive poison, Mr Putin has become well used to hearing such accusations. He and his entourage angrily deny any wrongdoing. Mr Putin’s accusers, mainly the Western media and his domestic critics, have, it has to be said, never offered up any conclusive proof of his alleged involvement in the grisly murder.

The allegations are rather based on hunches, circumstantial evidence, and draw heavily on Mr Putin’s own past as a former KGB spy. The body of evidence that Scotland Yard has collected points the finger at another man, former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi. Now an ultra-nationalist MP in the Russian parliament, Russia has repeatedly refused to extradite Mr Lugovoi to the UK. London for its part has made it clear it is uninterested in the Kremlin’s offer of possibly putting him on trial in Russia, believing rightly that such a trial would not be objective.

In fact, far from being offended by this latest accusation, Mr Putin may even be revelling in it. Though some of the other leaked cables paint a damning picture of the country he has helped create, Mr Putin loves a fight and has long since understood that his KGB past has helped him cultivate the strong man image that many ordinary Russians love and many in the West despise and fear.

He may ironically also feel a bit more loved by Washington. If there is one thing that has infuriated the Kremlin since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been the sense that its old Cold War foe was not taking it seriously or giving it the respect Moscow thought it deserved. The leaked cables may have said nothing good about Mr Putin or Russia but at least they showed that America is still watching and listening.