The Litvinenko Matter: Kremlin Conspiracy or Blofeld Set-Up?

While the Litvinenko mystery is right out of a spy movie, the stakes in real life—including for the West’s relationship with Russia—are very high.

The radioactive poisoning of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko raises many disturbing questions. And, as British Home Secretary John Reid said, the investigation should not make any premature assumptions and should be prepared to go in every possible direction. The Putin government, assuming it has nothing to hide, should cooperate with the British. The Kremlin's own self-interest requires nothing less than clearly addressing Western suspicions about its possible role in the assassination.

When a vitriolic critic of President Vladimir Putin is poisoned with a nuclear isotope, questions about Moscow's involvement are inevitable and appropriate. What is not appropriate is the highly simplistic and sometimes even misleading coverage of the affair in some Western media.  Consider a December 5 story in TheWashington Post, "British Police Take Poisoning Inquiry to Moscow," by Mary Jordan and Peter Finn.  It starts by referring to Litvinenko as "a former Russian spy." But there is no record that Litvinenko ever served with Russian foreign intelligence, either in the post-KGB foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR, or military intelligence, known as the GRU.  On the contrary, after junior assignments in FSB counterintelligence, the post-KGB internal security agency, Litvinenko built a name for himself in its organized crime department.  According to a remarkably insightful story in The New York Times ("Russian Ex-Spy Lived in a World of Deceptions," by Alan Cowell, December 3), in that capacity Litvinenko developed a relationship with leading Russian oligarch Boris Berzovsky as early as 1994. During that period of free fall after the collapse of Soviet institutions, Berezovsky openly mixed his senior positions in the Russian government with aggressive privatization of state assets for his own benefit.  And Litvinenko's department in the FSB was frequently viewed not so much as a law enforcement agency, but as a part of organized crime itself.

Worse, The Washington Post misleadingly describes Berezovsky as "a billionaire now living in self-imposed exile in London" who "was a friend of Litvinenko's." Anyone who read Paul Klebnikov's Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia would know that Litvinenko's "friend" was much more than an anti-Putin business leader. He was a master of Kremlin intrigue, widely reputed in numerous, and now public, accounts of bribing and corrupting everything and everyone around him, including members of Boris Yeltsin's family. And Berezovsky does not just oppose Putin's rule-he has said on several occasions that he is actively pursuing regime change in Russia using his base in London and his business and political contacts from Ukraine to Georgia.

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