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Justice for Alexander Litvinenko

David Satter

With the British charges against Andrei Lugovoi in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the first steps have taken toward justice in the case. More is at stake, however, than just the fate of one man. Like the Dreyfus case in France, the brazen murder of Litvinenko is a test of international society’s willingness to defend its most fundamental principles. For this reason, we must insist that the case be prosecuted to the end.

Until now, the Russian authorities have reacted to charges that the Federal Security Service (FSB) was behind the murder of Litvinenko with outraged innocence. The reaction was similar to the Soviet reaction after the murder of Georgy Markov in London in 1977. It was also reminiscent of the way spokesmen denied Russian involvement in the murder of the former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Qatar in 2004 unaware that Russian agents had been captured on videotape mining Yandarbiev’s car.

With the formal presentation of charges, however, denials and stonewalling will not be enough. The Russian Constitution bars the extradition of Russian citizens. But Russia signed the Council of Europe Extradition Convention in 2001 and the Russian Federation signed a memo of understanding with the British Crown Prosecution Service in November 2006 covering legal cooperation, including extradition. If Russia will not extradite Lugovoi, they must try him at home in a manner that meets international standards. If they are allowed to avoid a trial or hold a trial that they turn into an obvious farce, the result will be not merely a single injustice but subversion of the entire position of the West.

Relations between Russia and the West are, in many respects, paradoxical. Russia should be a firm ally of the West, concerned to balance Chinese strength, guard against Islamic terrorism and prevent the emergence of nuclear powers on its borders. Instead, it has emerged as a danger in its own right because it is intent on increasing its influence in the world by dominating its immediate neighbors in a manner that is antithetical to Western values.

The key to the situation is corruption. Russian officials run the biggest companies, controlling, according to some estimate, financial flows from assets that account for 80 per cent of the capitalization of the Russian stock market. Persons and institutions challenging this oligarchys hold on power have been steadily eliminated.

To distract attention from this situation, Russian leaders insist on Russia’s “right” to dominate the nations that emerged from the Soviet Union and—to a degree—the Warsaw Pact and to pursue its “great power” interests in a manner that pays little heed to the security needs of the West.

The results have been, in many respects, incredible. Russia reacted with hysteria to the removal of the Soviet war memorial in Tallinn although the bodies of Soviet World War II soldiers still lie unburied in Russia 60 years after the end of the war and there is almost no effort to memorialize thousands of Stalin era victims. Russia backs secession for Abkhazia and South Ossetia but not for Chechnya and is concerned about U.S. anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech republic but not the nuclear development of North Korea and Iran.

In fact, the domination of post-Soviet Russia by a corrupt bureaucracy is not new. It dates back to Yeltsin’s illegal dissolution of the Russian parliament in 1993. Yeltsin, however, was beholden to the West and needed Western aide. Under Putin, oil prices increased from $9 a barrel in 1998 to as much as $78. With this unprecedented inflow of money came self confidence and the consequences of the failure of post-Soviet Russia to adopt genuinely democratic values were given their full expression.

The West now is obliged to contend with irrational Russian policies in regard to U.S. plans for a defensive anti-missile system in Eastern Europe as well as in regard to Iran, North Korea, Georgia, Ukraine, and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In every case, what is involved is not Russias national interest but the aggressive assertion of Russias domination as a means of protecting the ruling Russian oligarchys monopoly of money and power.

Under these circumstances, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a British subject who was killed on British soil, can be understood as another example of the Russian bureaucracys aggressivity and its confidence that it can ignore reasonable Western norms.

In the months since Litvinenko’s death, Russian spokesmen have spared no effort in vilifying him and ridiculing the Wests interest in his fate. Sergei Ivanov, a deputy prime minister and a leading candidate to succeed Putin, said, Litvinenko had a “low intellect” and was inclined to provocation. “For us,” he said, “Litvinenko was a nobody.” A film about him that was shown on the NTV television network entitled, “Litvinenko: a Very British Murder,” in which he was accused of stealing money from his first wifes purse before leaving her. In an interview in the Russian newspaper, Izvestiya, Lugovoy answered a question about requests for him to go to London for questioning by saying, “Why, should I drop everything and rush off to England?”

Russians—both officials and ordinary citizens—were actually certain that the Litvinenko case would disappear as have so many cases of persons murdered for political opposition within Russia itself. It is for this reason, most of all, that the West needs to be resolute in pursuing justice in the case of one man. This is a vital way to limit the Russian tendency to live once again in a world of illusions, a bad habit left over from the delirium of the Soviet Union that promises nothing good in a world that needs decent values above all else.

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