Former Russian KGB Lt. Colonel Alexander Litvinenko died yesterday of what turns out to have been radiation poisoning. He was poisoned using a a highly unusual radioactive isotope called polonium 210:
Scientists were astounded at the use of the rare and hard-to-produce substance, polonium 210, which is dangerous when breathed, injected or ingested…
The cause of his death was so unusual, so baffling and so chilling that a senior British official called it “unprecedented.” The government called a high-level meeting restricted to the most senior ministers — codenamed Cobra — and the Russian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office. Rebutting the accusations of foul play, Russian officials hinted at a devious conspiracy to discredit President Putin…
At a news conference on Friday, Dr. Pat Troop, the Health Protection Agency’s chief executive, described Mr. Litvinenko’s death as “an unprecedented event in the U.K., in that someone has apparently been poisoned by a type of radiation.”
A British counterterrorism official said polonium 210 was a byproduct of the nuclear industry and is used in the production of antistatic materials. But in the form believed to have been used in the suspected poisoning, it would have required high-grade technical skills and a sophisticated scientific process to produce, probably within a nuclear lab.
If this official is correct, then can there be any doubt who is behind his murder? Russia and the KBG, of course.
And if this is the case, then it raises several interesting issues. Litvinenko himself said he’d been poisoned because of his work attempting to unravel the recent contract assassination of muckraking Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. There is speculation that she in turn, might’ve been murdered either by the FSB or Russian-sponsored Chechens whom she accused of corruption and crimes of violence. So if Litvinenko is right, then it might be the case that the KGB murdered Politkovskaya and then followed that with Litvinenko’s poisoning in order to stifle any chance that her murder would be solved (at least by Litvinenko).
The Times provides this background on Litvinenko’s spying career and recent relations with the Kremlin:
Mr. Litvinenko was a former operative in the K.G.B. who became a colonel in its successor organization, known by its Russian initials as the F.S.B. In the late 1990s, Mr. Litvinenko said publicly that he had been ordered to assassinate Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian tycoon, but had refused to do so. He fled to Britain and secured British citizenship earlier this year. In 2003, he wrote a book accusing the Russian secret service of orchestrating apartment house bombings in Russia in 1999 that led to the second Chechen war.
Since his illness became known last week, his friends have depicted his poisoning as an officially sanctioned reprisal for his criticism of the Kremlin and his efforts to investigate the fatal shooting of Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent Russian journalist.
This is precisely what the murdered man and his family believe/d as well:
The former agent’s family, citing what they called a statement dictated by the dying Mr. Litvinenko, accused President Putin of a “barbaric and ruthless” murder — a charge the Russian leader promptly rejected. Mr. Litvinenko’s father, Walter, also accused Russian authorities of responsibility, and said his 43-year-old son, who had been inquiring into the killing of a journalist in Moscow last month, was “killed by a little, tiny nuclear bomb.”
…Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Mr. Litvinenko, read what was described as the former spy’s deathbed statement, addressed largely to President Putin.
“You may succeed in silencing me, but that silence comes at a price,” the statement read. “You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.”
“You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilized value,” the statement said. “May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.”
Haaretz reports that the former CEO of Yukos, Leonid Nevzlin, recently met with Litvinenko in Israel and turned over to him documents regarding Yukos which cast the government in a very bad light. The former CEO believes Litvinenko might’ve been killed by Yukos’ enemies both in Russian business and the FSB or Putin administration:
Russian-born businessman Leonid Nevzlin, former CEO of the Yukos oil company and current chairman of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, said Friday that he had met in Israel with former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died Thursday in London from poisoning.
During the meeting, Litvinenko allegedly passed Nevzlin documents containing classified information possibly damaging to the current leadership in Russia.
In Nevzlin’s estimation, Litvinenko’s murder was tied to the information relating to Yukos contained in the documents. Nevzlin has turned the documents over to the London Metropolitan Police, who are investigating the murder.
So there seem to be many possible reasons for his murder but they all seem to lead back to the FSB.
The world has seen countless examples of the barbarity and cruelty of the current Russian regime under Vladimir Putin. It is a system that despises not only its external and internal enemies, but its own inhabitants. Think of the Moscow theater siege in which government agents poisoned not only the attackers but scores of hostages as well. Think of the Beslan siege in which the security forces assaulted the school killing not only the attackers but several hundred hostages most of whom were women and children. Not to mention the two assassinations I’ve outlined here plus the Yuschenko dioxin poisoning which likely was FSB work as well. Russia’s recent nuclear meltdown over the expulsion of its spies caught red-handed in Georgia indicates that Putin has raised hysteria and bellicosity to standard modus operandi in Russian international policy. This is a rogue state. A state willing to use terror whether at home or abroad to advance its corrupt agenda. Do we want Russian FSB hit men stalking our streets ready to settle internal scores on behalf of their corporate/state sponsors back in Moscow?
There is another element to the brazenness of this crime. Instead of choosing a more mundane means of killing Litvinenko which would’ve provided an element of confusion and cover for his killers, they chose a method which could clearly only be implemented with the aid of a highly specialized scientific lab as the Times writes. This points the finger clearly back at the Russian government and its spy apparatus. Who else would have both the motive and this particular means? Almost no one except them. So in its method of murder, the FSB seems to be leaving its signature clearly for all the world to see. It’s almost that they’re bragging in our face about their expertise and bravado. “We’re good, and we’re proud of our work. Let our enemies beware. Our reach spreads everywhere,” they seem to be saying.
Of course, there is the distinct possibility that his murderers were so supremely (or insanely) self-confident in their method that they believed British authorities would never figure out how Litvinenko had been killed. After all, this is one helluva tough poison to detect.
The NY Times published an even more expansive piece on the nature and history of polonium. It further reinforces what I’ve written above:
“This is wild,” said Dr. F. Lee Cantrell, a toxicologist and director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System. “To my knowledge, it’s never been employed as a poison before. And it’s such an obscure thing. It’s not easy to get. That’s going to be something like the K.G.B. would have in some secret facility or something.”
In a quick search of medical journals, he could find only one article describing the deliberate use of a radioactive poison to kill. It was from 1994, he said, published in Russian…
Making the “significant quantities” described in Mr. Litvinenko’s body by the British Health Protection Agency would require a nuclear reactor that could bombard the metallic element bismuth with neutrons.
“To most chemists, this is astonishing,” said Dr. Andrea Sella, a lecturer in inorganic chemistry at London’s University College. “This is not available commercially. It is present in food, but only in the kind of trace quantities that can be detected by ultrasensitive analytical techniques. It is one of the rarest elements on the earth’s crust and also one of the most exotic.”
Britain is now faced with what will probably turn out to be a brazen affront to its sovereignty in the form of the Putin regime settling scores with its enemies in the heart of London. And make no mistake, if Putin and his FSB assassins have the balls to murder a man in London, they will become emboldened and feel they have been given license to murder them in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Rome. Is this something that the west is willing to tolerate? If not, strong action must be taken. Warnings must be made. Punishments inflicted. Ship the entire FSB contingent housed in all major western capitals back home as personae non grata (Latinists did I get that right?). Putin must be made to pay a price as Litvinenko said on his deathbed.
I always allow villains to have their say here both for reasons of fairness and because they often make a bollocks of their own defense. And Putin’s enablers are no exception:
In Helsinki, where the poisoning overshadowed efforts to resolve disagreements on European-Russian relations, Mr. Putin’s aide in charge of European affairs, Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, said: “What is alarming is the eye-striking, excessive number of deliberate coincidences of high-profiling deaths of people who positioned themselves as opponents to the existing Russian government with international events in which the Russian president takes part.”
He added that Russia faced “a well-orchestrated campaign or a plan to consistently discredit Russia and its leader,” according to the Interfax news agency.
This is worthy of Robert Mugabe’s fever dreams about his foreign enemies out to get him. Leave it to mad tyrants to imagine that their vague, mysterious enemies are those committing these heinous crimes. Instead of bizarre conspiracy theories, Putin, give us some evidence to prove there is even a scintilla of truth in this particular fever dream. Even better, cooperate fully with the Scotland Yard investigation (a laugh!).