Skip to main content

Who Killed Alexander Litvinenko?

David Satter

Until a week ago, Alexander Litvinenko, a former colonel in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), was virtually unknown outside the murky world of Russian intelligence. With his death in London from a massive dose of the radioactive element polonium 210, however, his fate may lead to a fundamentally different relationship between Russia and the West.

Beginning with the Yeltsin era, two U.S. administrations have muted their criticism of Russia. This was the case even in the face of a series of political murders in Russia. If Litvinenko, a British subject, was murdered by Russian intelligence on British soil, however, self censorship is no longer an option. Unless we want to give the Putin regime carte blanche to dispose of its enemies on our soil, we now have no choice but to react.

Russian television has given an explanation for the murder of Litvinenko as surrealistic as any offered by the Soviets during the Cold War. It attributed Litvinenko’s death to intrigues in the entourage of the exiled Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. An announcer on the evening news said Litvinenko was “a pawn in a game whose significance he did not understand.”

Berezovsky, however, had no reason to kill Litvinenko whose views he shared and who he had helped since his arrival in England in 2000. In November, 1998, Litvinenko revealed a plot to kill Berezovsky who, at the time, was the deputy head of the Russian security council.

The evidence points instead to Litvinenko having been murdered by the FSB, which together with the other “force ministries” has become the dominant political force in Russia today.

The FSB has always had a strong interest in Putin’s critics abroad. In December, 2001, a Russian police official, in announcing a warrant for Berezovsky’s arrest, said, “We know what he eats for breakfast, where he has lunch and where he buys his groceries.” This was followed up in September, 2003 with an unsuccessful attempt to kill Berezovsky with a needle camouflaged as a pen. The British reacted by granting Berezovsky political asylum. In 2004, a stranger threw a Molotov cocktail at Litvinenko and Akhmed Zakaev, the London representative of the separatist government of Chechnya, as they stood on the street near Litvinenko’s residence.

Besides a history of tracking Putin’s opponents, the FSB could have been encouraged to kill Litvinenko because in June, the Russian State Duma passed a law allowing the president to authorize attacks by the FSB on “terrorists” in foreign countries. In fact, the Russian intelligence services do not need a law to attack persons they regard as terrorists abroad. On February 13, 2004, the former Chechen president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed and his 12 year old son seriously injured when a bomb attached by Russian agents ripped apart their SUV. The new law, however, gives a seal of legitimacy to such operations and guarantees that those who carried them out will not be disowned or forgotten in the event of failure.

In the last six years, the makeup of the ruling elite in Russia has undergone a dramatic change. Once in power, Putin filled the majority of important posts with veterans of the security services, many with ties to him dating back to his work in St. Petersburg.

By 2003, the top ministers, half of the members of the Russian security council and 70 per cent of all senior regional officials in Russia were former members of the security services. At the same time, many of these persons gained access to great wealth. Russia was totally corrupt under Yeltsin but, according to IDEM, an independent Russian think tank, with the rise in oil prices, the level of corruption in Russia between 2002 and 2005 increased 900 per cent.

The result of these developments was that Putin created an FSB ruling class. As this class became rooted, the victims of contract killers in Russia began to include some of the most prominent political figures in the country.

The most sensitive question in Russia is the provenance of the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk in which 300 persons died. As a result of the bombings, the Second Chechen War was launched and, in his role as wartime leader, Putin, then the prime minister, achieved enough popularity to be elected president. There is widespread belief, however, that the real authors of the bombings were the FSB. Two of the political figures murdered in Russia in recent years were trying to investigate the bombings.

The first victim was Sergei Yushenkov, a co-chairman of the Liberal Russia Party and member of the commission on the apartment bombings. He was shot on April 17, 2003. Mikhail Kodanev, the other leader of the Liberal Russia Party, was tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison for organizing the murder. Two years later, however, Igor Korolkov, a reporter for Moscow News, learned that a video camera near the building where Yushenkov was shot captured two persons running from the building immediately after the killing. The police collected the tape but it was never included in the case filed against Kodanev.

In July, 2003, Duma deputy Yuri Shchekochikhin, another member of the commission on the 1999 bombings, died after contracting an unexplained illness. Shchekochikhin, who was also a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, had been investigating the “Three Whales” furniture stores that had reportedly evaded millions of dollars in import duties. A co-founder of the stores was the father of Yuri Zaostrovtsev, then a deputy director of the FSB. Shchekochikhins illness progressed catastrophically from peeling skin to “edemas of the respiratory system and brain” and death. When Novaya Gazeta tried to investigate whether he had been poisoned, they were told that all information was a “medical secret” that could not be disclosed even to family members.

Finally, Anna Politkovskaya, perhaps Russia’s best known journalist, was murdered last month. She traveled to Chechnya regularly despite the risk and was sought out by people from all over the North Caucasus in the hope that she would tell the world about their situation. It used to be said in Russia that no one is killed for politics. Politkovskaya, however, was clearly the victim of a political killing because she wrote only about politics.

Litvinenko resembles the others in this list in all respects except one. He lived in England. His book, The FSB Explodes Russia accused the FSB of the 1999 apartment bombings. He received visitors from Russia, was able to comment knowledgably on the actions of the FSB in Moscow, and refused to be intimidated.

In the wake of Litvinenko’s death, the West must insist on cooperation from the FSB in finding his killers. If that is not forthcoming, it should be assumed that the murder of Litvinenko was ordered by the Russian regime.

Under those circumstances, not only should Russia be expelled from the G-8 but the whole structure of mutual consultation and cooperation would need to be reevaluated. This is not just a matter of refusing to trivialize the murder of an innocent man. It is also a vital political obligation. Russians of all types are watching to see whether the West will simply swallow this crime or finally react to the rampant criminalization of Russian society.

There are forces in Russia that want the country to be part of the West. But to back them, we need to demonstrate that we have moral values that we are ready to defend. To do less would be to abandon Russia to the forces of nihilism and obscurantism that threaten to overwhelm the country 15 years after we hoped that it had broken with tyranny once and for all.

Related Articles

Harsh Turkish Ruling Extends US Pastor's Imprisonment

Lela Gilbert

A Turkish court ruled on Monday that imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson will remain in jail at least until his new trial date in July ...

Continue Reading

Drilling Down at Cannes

Martha Bayles

Let’s not roll out the red carpet as Saudi Arabia enters the movie business ...

Continue Reading

Post-Conflict Stabilization in Syria and the Potential Impact of U.S. Military Withdrawal

Jonas Parello-​Plesner

President Donald Trump wants to pull US troops out of Syria, and he recently froze $200 million in stabilization funds for the country...

View PDF