Litvinenko Under the Microscope

December 1, 2006 Topic: Security Region: RussiaEurasia

Litvinenko Under the Microscope

The death of Alexander Litvinenko has exposed a web of relationships spanning twenty years and two continents.

A resident of Alexander Litvinenko's birthplace describes, in Charlotte Dobson's Black Earth City, the western Russian city of Voronezh as: "So small-minded. Just gossip, gossip." In the city of Litvinenko's death-London-gossip, rumors and conspiracy theories continue to surround Litvinenko and his mysterious demise-requiring a higher-minded parsing of the facts from speculation.


Litvinenko died on November 23 at the age of 43 in a British hospital with high levels of polonium-210 in his urine, three weeks after falling ill. As for the origins of this isotope, Yale geology and geophysics professor Karl K. Turekian told National Interest online, "Wherever there is a nuclear arsenal, there's polonium-210." There are also news reports that polonium-210 can be purchased online.

British Home Secretary John Reid has confirmed traces of polonium in twelve locations throughout London, with more possible confirmations to come. Additionally, two British Airways 767s that frequently make the London-Moscow trip shows possible signs of radioactive contamination, and a third British Airways plane in Moscow along with a Transaero aircraft that landed in London on Thursday are the subject of investigation. Scotland Yard suspects, according to London's Telegraph, that assassins transported the polonium from Moscow to London on an October 25 British Airways flight. The newspaper also reports that British scientists know the polonium's point of origin. Across St. George's Channel in Ireland, former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar fell ill on November 24. According to doctors, "unnatural products" caused the illness, while Gaidar's daughter less euphemistically suggested poison.

On November 1, Litvinenko left a radioactive trail all over London that included encounters with a cast of characters seemingly lifted from an Ian Fleming novel.  Many of the characters are linked to Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) or exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky-and some are linked to both.

Years of Living Dangerously

The Litvinenko saga and the complex web it encompasses began 16 years ago in the Soviet Union.

Litvinenko joined the KGB in 1988, working in counter-intelligence. After the Soviet Union collapsed and the FSB succeeded the KGB, he moved to the Organized Crime Control Directorate, an elite unit investigating terrorism and organized crime. He achieved notoriety in 1998, when he claimed publicly that he refused orders to assassinate Berezovsky. Later that year, Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin FSB director. According to a Litvinenko essay published posthumously, this effectively ended his intelligence career. He wrote that his past investigations had nearly revealed that Putin, while deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, was involved in drug trafficking, organized crime and the smuggling of rare metals.

In the ensuing years, Litvinenko served two separate stints in an FSB prison, facing charges relating to abuse of office, though the government eventually dropped both cases.

"I was given illegal orders linked to the kidnapping and murder of people", Litvinenko wrote in retrospect. "When we did not execute these orders, they began to persecute us. Criminal cases against me were opened. I was offered a higher post in exchange for my silence."

In prison, he met and befriended Berezovsky ally and subordinate Alex Goldfarb, who then directed a George Soros-funded project to fight tuberculosis in Russian prisons. In 2000, with Litvinenko set to face jail time on charges of faking evidence in an investigation, Goldfarb helped manage Litvinenko's escape to England, via Turkey. (Goldfarb, director of Berezovsky's Civil Liberties Fund, served as Litvinenko's spokesmen as he lay dying but was typically identified only as a family friend.)

Once in England, Litvinenko went on the offensive against Putin. Berezovsky, also in exile in London, financed his 2002 book, Blowing up Russia: Terror From Within, in which Litvinenko accused the Russian government and FSB of responsibility for the 1999Moscowand Volgodonsk apartment bombings that helped justify the second Chechen War. He continued to criticize the Kremlin throughout his time in London.

In July 2006, writing on a pro-Chechen website, Litvinenko accused Putin of pedophilia, writing: "When Putin became the FSB director and was preparing for presidency, he began to seek and destroy any compromising materials collected against him . . . Putin found videotapes in the FSB Internal Security Directorate, which showed him making sex with some underage boys."

Moscow vehemently denied the accusations, but Litvinenko's attacks on the Kremlin continued.

Pointing at Putin

On his death bed, Litinenko spoke directly to his former KGB comrade, Russian President Vladimir Putin: "You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. . . . You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people."

A Day in the Life of Litvinenko

November 1, 2006:

At approximately 2 p.m. Litvinenko lunched with Mario Scaramella, an Italian academic with a shady background. He is no newcomer to the Russian security services or nuclear materials-nor, according to Scaramella, was Litvinenko, who reportedly boasted at lunch that, "he had masterminded the smuggling of radioactive material [from Russia] to Zurich in 2000."

Beginning in 1992, Scaramella was a consultant for the Mitrokhin Commission, an Italian parliamentary commission investigating KGB and Eastern Bloc security services' activities on Italian soil during the Cold War. His self-proclaimed focus was the KGB and its successor organizations' smuggling of radioactive material. Scaramella is currently under investigation in Italy, where magistrates have suggested that he planted evidence relating to an assassination attempt on him and Italian politician Paolo Guzzanti in 2004, which Scaramella suspects was the work of Ukrainian mobsters but others believe the Neapolitan mafia conducted.

Scaramella is currently in a safe house in London and proclaims his innocence in the Litvinenko case. London's Telegraph reported on Friday that Scaramella had tested positive for polonium, with "significant" amounts "detected in his urine." The purpose of his meeting with Litvinenko is unclear, with reports of two possible sets of documents transferred: one containing a Russian security services "hit-list", featuring both Litvinenko and Scaramella, and another identifying those responsible for the assassination of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya on October 7.

Litvinenko friend Yuri Felshtinsky, who co-authored Blowing up Russia, has stated that around November 12, Litvinenko suspected Scaramella as his assassin. Other speculation has focused on Litvinenko's November 1 post-lunch meeting with three Russian men-ex-KGB officer and businessmanAndrey Lugovoi, Dmitriy Kovtun and Vyacheslav Sokolenko-at the Millenium Hotel in Mayfair. In the 1990s Lugovoi ran security for Russia's ORT television, then owned by Berezovsky. Litvinenko's brother Maxim recently said of the trio: "I am sure they poisoned him. They met him, trapped him and gave him poison." Lugovoi told Kommersant that he traveled on one of the contaminated aircrafts on November 3, but denies any involvement in the poisoning. Litvinenko also visited Berezovsky's offices later that day.

The Independent also reports that police are not ruling out the possibility that Litvinenko committed suicide to discredit Putin.

The Chechen Connection

Litvinenko joins a growing list of people whose involvement with Chechnya may have contributed to their deaths. In 2002 the FSB took credit for assassinating Chechen rebel leader Omar Ibn al-Khattab with a poisoned letter. In 2003 Duma member Sergei Yushenkov, who had assembled an independent body to investigate the 1999 apartment bombings, was shot and killed; a Berezovsky associate was convicted in the case. That same year, Novaya Gazeta journalist and chair of the Duma subcommittee on investigations Yuri Shchekochikin died after contracting an unexplained illness. He was also investigating the 1999 apartment bombings along with other high profile criminal cases, included that of then-head of the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry Yevgeni Adamov. More recently, Anna Politkovskaya, also a Novaya Gazeta reporter, known for her criticism and documentation of Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya was shot dead in her apartment building in October. This followed her near death in 2004, which she claimed resulted from a poisoning attempt.

In 2004, former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiev died in a car bombing in Doha, Qatar. Two Russian military intelligence (GRU) operatives were tried and convicted for the bombing, though eventually returned to Russia where they are no longer incarcerated. Yandarbiev had left Chechnya following the beginning of the second Chechen conflict and raised money throughout the Islamic world, eventually settling in Qatar in 2001. He was targeted for funneling money to Chechen terrorists and for his own suspected involvement in the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, in which Chechen militants seized approximately 700 hostages, nearly one hundred of which died during the rescue attempt, which included the use of an incapacitating agent.

Litvinenko's connection to Chechnya dates back to his FSB service there from 1991-1996. The family of former Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov released a statement on November 24, praising Litvinenko's life work and identifying him as a convert to Islam.

"Anyone who values truth, honour, dignity and the future of their country might end up as Aleksandr Litvinenko, Yuriy Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya and others did. The reason is that our enemy is dangerous and cowardly, it plants bags with hexogen in basements, lies in wait for its victim at the entrance to their homes, kills civilians and resorts to the most barbarous methods-forbids burying people."