Nearly eight years ago, the news shocked the world that Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian FSB officer who defected to Britain in 2000, died after having been poisoned while having tea with three other retired Russian intelligence agents in a luxury London hotel. The FSB, or Federal Security Service, is the successor to the communist era’s KGB.
Litvinenko’s wife, Marina, spent several years petitioning British authorities for a formal investigation, but top-level officials who were trying to repair their strained relationship with Moscow continuously impeded her efforts. Now, however, upset at the high-handed ways of Russian President Vladimir Putin, British authorities are signaling that there will finally be a “public inquiry” into the matter.
There has been little coverage in the American press of the Litvinenko affair since the 2006 release of photos showing him literally decaying from the radioactive poison used to kill him, but Britons remember him as a hero who challenged Mr. Putin and courageously sacrificed his life to tell the world about the FSB’s possible role in one of Russia’s worst terrorist incidents. This was the 1999 bombing of several Moscow apartment buildings that killed hundreds. The bombing took place just as Mr. Putin was running to replace an embattled Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation.
Mr. Putin, portraying himself as a strong man capable of dealing with terrorists more effectively anyone else, blamed Chechen rebels for the attacks, and swept to power in the Kremlin with a clear mandate to carry out the Second Chechen War.
Litvinenko’s journey from FSB agent to whistleblower started just before the Moscow apartment bombings. He continuously questioned his FSB superiors — among them Mr. Putin, and pushed his superiors to investigate government corruption. In 1998, he went public with allegations of FSB corruption and was prosecuted by Russian authorities. Following an acquittal, he was reprosecuted, but fled to London and granted asylum, where he worked with Britain’s MI6 and the Spanish secret services to combat organized crime.
Litvinenko also worked as a journalist, and stunned Europe by claiming FSB officials had orchestrated the 1999 bombings that effectively brought Mr. Putin to power. The allegations sent shock waves through the Kremlin as well, and in September 2006, he was poisoned with polonium-210, a nuclear isotope almost exclusively available in Russia.
British investigators think that former FSB agent Andrey Lugovoy poisoned Litvinenko’s tea during a meeting at London’s Millennium Hotel because traces of polonium were later found in Mr. Lugovoy’s hotel room. Polonium-210 can be transported in minuscule, but lethal amounts and is not detectable by airport security. It is safe to carry because it emits only alpha rays rather than radioactive gamma rays, which are harmless unless ingested.
The use of polonium-210 also makes it difficult to pinpoint a killer’s identity, but leaves the mark of state-sponsored assassination to send a message. A month before Litvinenko was killed, renowned investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was executed in her Moscow apartment building, and in 2009, her key source, Natalia Estemirova, was abducted and killed. The New York Times noted the two had been investigating the Kremlin for extrajudicial killings and kidnappings.
Many thought at the time that the Kremlin was not just silencing potentially dangerous critics, but sending a clear message to others that in Mr. Putin’s Russia, whistlerblowers would be dealt with harshly and summarily.
As recently as last year, Russian oligarch and Litvinenko ally Boris Berezovsky was found hanging in his Berkshire apartment under suspicious circumstances, and Mikhail Trepashkin, a Russian lawyer investigating the Moscow apartment bombings, was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison for “revealing state secrets.”
Luke Harding and David Satter, two Western journalists also investigating the case, have been expelled from Russia.
The Kremlin has gone to great lengths to cover up the facts surrounding the 1998 bombings, but some prominent Americans concur with Litvinenko’s accusations.
In 2003, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said on the Senate floor that he believes the charges implicating Mr. Putin in the bombings, and in 2007, Mr. Satter, a Hudson Institute scholar and Moscow correspondent for The Financial Times, testified similarly before the U.S. House of Representatives.
He said: “With Yeltsin and his family facing possible criminal prosecution a plan was put into motion to put in place a successor who would guarantee that Yeltsin and his family would be safe from prosecution … . For ‘Operation Successor’ to succeed, however, it was necessary to have a massive provocation. In my view, this provocation was the bombing in September 1999 of the apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk … . In the aftermath of these attacks a new war was launched against Chechnya. Mr. Putin, the newly appointed prime minister who was put in charge of that war, achieved overnight popularity. Yeltsin resigned early. Putin was elected president, and his first act was to guarantee Yeltsin immunity from prosecution.”
Mr. Litvinenko’s book “Blowing Up Russia” remains the only book banned in the country since the collapse of the USSR. If his accusations are untrue, what is the Kremlin so afraid of? The Putin administration dismisses Litvinenko as a traitor, but the reopening of the British investigation of his death could finally lead to the truth and very possibly lay bare the illegitimacy of Mr. Putin’s rise to power.
Alexander Litvinenko was no traitor. He was a patriot who dreamed of a Russia transformed into the democracy he thought it could become. He died for freedom. He died for his country.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a legal analyst for The Washington Times.