Litvinenko poisoning: five theories

According to a source, Litvinenko had been working for British intelligence for a long time. He was chronically short of money, and his pathological greed made him wiling to get involved in any risky venture. Eventually, he became an inconvenience to both British intelligence and Boris Berezovsky.

The time has come to draw some initial conclusions from the strange story in London.

So, who killed the fugitive FSB officer – forgotten in Russia, since he hadn’t done anything of note in the past few years? How did it happen that he died suddenly after receiving a large dose of radiation – and in “vigilant” London at that, a city which had recently experienced serious terrorist threats? What’s more, the radiation source (polonium-210, as the British authorities claim) is not freely available and is held under tight security.

The British special services and police simply must find the answers to these and other questions, since beyond the defector’s murder, a greater problem arises: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

First theory: revenge by the Russian special services.

First, and most convenient for the West, is the theory that the Russian special services were involved. The long arm of the Federal Security Service (FSB) managed to reach Litvinenko the traitor, even beyond Russia’s borders.

Yet the Kremlin could hardly thank its intelligence agents for such clumsy work. What a very important person Litvinenko must have been, if the method selected to destroy him was not only exotic, but also something that caused an uproar across half of Europe. Not only is there polonium-210 all over London – now it’s being found in Moscow, Italy, Germany, and who knows where else. All the Western media are saying that one of the people who met with Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel on November 1 – Dmitri Kovtun – has radiation sickness and is in a coma. Another suspect – Andrei Lugovoi – is in hospital with acute radiation sickness, which has also affected his entire family, including an eight-year-old child.

Actually, Lugovoi and Kovtun have turned up very conveniently for this theory. Who else could be regarded as the FSB agents who “murdered” Litvinenko? Defector Oleg Gordievski and long-time CIA helper Alex Goldfarb from the Berezovsky-funded Civil Liberties Foundation are dropping some transparent hints about Lugovoi’s past: allegedly, he was recruited by the FSB while in the Lefortovo prison in connection with the case of former Aeroflot deputy director Nikolai Glushkov, and subsequently released early and provided with money.

But here is what our sources at the Prosecutor General’s Office say. Lugovoi was indeed convicted of plotting Glushkov’s escape from custody in 2001 on orders from Boris Berezovsky and Badri Patarkatsishvili. Lugovoi was proven guilty and served out his full sentence. So the FSB didn’t help him at all. And his money probably came in the form of a reward for not betraying his masters, either during the investigation or in court. Moreover, as Lugovoi himself has said, he and Litvinenko were in business together. Marina, Litvinenko’s widow, has confirmed this. So why would Lugovoi kill the goose that laid the golden eggs for him?

One might assume, of course (as the British media have already done), that Kovtun and Lugovoi were dupes used by the real clients behind the poisoning. But that makes their behavior all the more strange. If Lugovoi and Kovtun have been affected by radiation themselves, why would they conceal anything now? In their place, any normal person would shout the real killers’ identities from the rooftops – especially given that their wives and children are affected as well.

Something else is more suspicious in the theory that Lugovoi was involved. Lugovoi, former security guard for Berezovsky and Patarkatsishvili, has never once mentioned his true masters in connection with this incident. Why not? It looks like Lugovoi himself is the first to suspect that Litvinenko’s poisoning was the work of Berezovsky and his terrorist buddy Zakayev – but he fears to name those names: it would lead to trouble from his “employers” and their protectors within the British authorities.

Second theory: the Spanish gambit and the "Russian mafia".

Earlier this year, Spanish police arrested a number of Russian crime bosses headed by Shakro Jr. It is an established fact that Litvinenko bragged to his associates about providing the Spanish authorities with information about those arrestees. He flew to Madrid several times for meetings with his Spanish masters. It is said that Shakro Jr.’s people found out about Litvinenko’s role in their arrest and put out a contract on him.

Although this theory may seem unlikely, it is still worth considering. The point here is that having Litvinenko shot by a hired hitman would be extremely problematic in respectable London. Even Russian gangsters find it practically impossible to bring weapons into Britain, and it would be unrealistic to try buying weapons in London without being detected by police.

But London is swarming with extremist Islamist groups, and finding a dirty bomb among them would be a feasible task. This might explain the low level of skill shown by the “radioactive killers” in the Litvinenko case.

Third theory: the Chechen or Islamist connection.

This theory becomes very substantial in connection with reports that Litvinenko converted to Islam. It is known that some people in the Caucasus had cause for a blood feud against Litvinenko after the first war in Chechnya. For example, in a recent interview on Russian television, a special services veteran related how Litvinenko had tortured a captive guerrilla who died due to the pain and shock. And how many other such incidents went unreported? Although Litvinenko later served the separatists headed by Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakayev, Chechen warriors couldn’t forgive him. But the Chechen turncoats among Berezovsky’s associates accepted and tolerated Litvinenko – for a while… And then they decided to use him as a “suicide terrorist,” while keeping him in the dark, with the aim of raising another anti-Russian wave in the West.

Supporting this theory is the fact that Litvinenko himself never did manage to accuse anyone (other than Putin – why not go for the top?) of causing his death. True, he did also drag in Scaramella the Italian (pointing to him as the murderer). Litvinenko couldn’t even give a coherent explanation of exactly how he was poisoned with polonium-210 (unless, of course, it resulted from his own careless handling of radioactive materials).

But it’s unlikely that Zakayev and his Islamist associates were only doing the will of those who had a blood feud against Litvinenko. They probably had a more substantial objective. Hence the next two theories: the hand of Berezovsky, and a British intelligence operation.

Fourth theory: the hand of Berezovsky.

Boris Berezovsky is a recognized master of intrigue and provocations. Litvinenko was his “creation,” of course – but it is known for certain that Litvinenko had started causing problems for Berezovsky in the past two or three years. Berezovsky cut Litvinenko’s salary at the Civil Liberties Foundation from 4,500 pounds to 1,500 pounds per month. Berezovsky was extremely displeased by the fact that Litvinenko engaged in unlawful business activities, to put it mildly. He also knew that Litvinenko had started to cooperate with the Spanish special services in fighting the “Russian mafia.” From his own experience back in Russia, Berezovsky knew where that might lead.

So was it a case of “no Litvinenko, no problem”? First of all, Berezovsky would be getting rid of an unwelcome witness to all his dirty acts of provocation against Russia. Secondly, maintaining Litvinenko was becoming not only expensive, but politically dangerous. Thirdly (and most importantly, in our view): clouds have been gathering over Berezovsky’s own head in recent months. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office seems to be closer to coming up with the kind of evidence the British courts would need to approve Berezovsky’s extradition. So he needed a new, powerful, and unusual move – something to denounce “the bloodthirsty Putin regime.”

Of course, the “polonium Russian connection” was quite dangerous for Berezovsky: what if this act of provocation is solved after all? But if Berezovsky, with the help of his protectors in London, can succeed in shifting the blame to Moscow, then he would be able to be confident that Britain won’t hand him over to Russia.

Fifth theory: MI6 helped Berezovsky.

This is prompted by information received from a friend of Litvinenko, now living in Ukraine. Let’s call him S. – he asked to remain anonymous for now, but assured us that he is preparing to make a statement to Russian police after Scotland Yard’s official investigation is completed.

According to S., Litvinenko had been working for British intelligence for a long time, and quite successfully. He was assigned to identify and recruit agents from among Russian citizens who are of interest to the British special services. Litvinenko made his first contacts with potential agents in London, then moved them to Spain, Finland, Sweden, or Turkey. At every meeting, Litvinenko was accompanied by MI6 agents – who seem to have been protecting him from any external influence.

As S. told us, Litvinenko sometimes gave his annoying handlers the slip, whether in London or in other countries. Litvinenko was always chronically short of money. He often forced the agents he recruited to “make up information” in order to receive some more money as a reward from MI6. His pathological greed made him wiling to get involved in any risky venture, even something that endangered his life. For example, on a trip to Cyprus, he met with some “bearded Chechens” (without the knowledge of his MI6 minders) in the hotel room where S. was staying. Litvinenko and the Chechens locked themselves in the bathroom and talked about something, flushing the toilet constantly to muffle their voices. In Finland, according to S., Litvinenko told him that “it will be all over for Putin soon” – saying that the Islamists were working on a terrorist attack “that would shake all of Russia.” Once, talking about these topics, Litvinenko showed S. some sort of unmarked metal box, like a jewelery casket. After Litvinenko’s death, S. looked back at these incidents and saw them in a different light.

It’s most unlikely that Litvinenko’s contacts with Chechens or Islamic extremists passed unnoticed by the British special services. And here the interests of British intelligence and the interests of Berezovsky fully coincided: Litvinenko had to be eliminated. The out-of-control agent was causing problems for British intelligence and for the oligarch under its protection.

Let’s answer the three main questions that are bound to arise.

1. Why use such a convoluted method of killing Litvinenko? Because a quiet murder would have achieved only a localized objective. Poisoning with polonium-210 turned this death into an outrageous “Kremlin crime” against a British citizen. Perhaps MI6 knew that Litvinenko was toying with radioactive materials (or dealing in them, together with his associates from Zakayev’s circle), but decided not to intervene, knowing where all this would eventually lead.

2. Why has the Transaero jet used by Lugovoi to fly to London in October turned out to be clean, while another jet owned by the same airline, used for Lugovoi’s return journey to Moscow, has produced traces of polonium? The British Airways jets used by Lugovoi to go to London on October 31 and return to Moscow on November 3 were contaminated. The conclusion is simple: polonium traces were taken to Moscow by Lugovoi and to Hamburg by Kovtun before November 1 – that is, before the date which is being imposed on everyone as the day Litvinenko was poisoned.

3. In talking of a “Russian connection” in the polonium story, why don’t the British authorities mention that some polonium-210 was stolen from a nuclear laboratory in Ireland in August 2004? Whose hands might it have fallen into?

The British special services are keeping silent, thus far, about the death of their agent. However, we shall venture to assume that Scotland Yard is investigating the case according to a strict script drawn up by MI6. Gentlemen, place your bets: we shall hear quite soon that Scotland Yard’s investigation has been “successful and productive.”

First of all, some “guilty parties” will be designated (Lugovoi or Kovtun). Secondly, the country where the polonium-210 was produced will be identified: Russia, of course. For example, the British might hear from their American friends and partners that the source of the polonium has been established (one of Russia’s nuclear cetners will be indicated). Thirdly, the chief client who ordered this murder will be named: the Russian president. To keep up appearances, Scotland Yard will demand the extradition of the Russian citizens suspected of committing the murder, knowing in advance that the request will be denied, in accordance with Russian law.

Our impression is that Lugovoi and Kovtun know rather more than they’re telling about Litvinenko. And only their long-standing friendship with Berezovsky is holding them back from telling the whole truth about Litvinenko. Apparently, Lugovoi has some sort of moral (and perhaps material) obligations to Berezovsky.

We don’t care about the Lugovoi-Berezovsky relationship; let them sort it out for themselves. But it’s a motley crew which has been offered refuge by the British special services; for some time, they have been playing a dangerous game with shady characters like Berezovsky, Zakayev, or Litvinenko. What’s more, they are also sheltering various extremist Islamic groups. Oddly enough, they don’t seem to have learned anything from the London bombings or the recently-averted liquid explosive attacks on aircraft. Or is the Litvinenko affair meant to be London’s answer to Moscow for the major spy scandal of 2005?

It’s regrettable that the special services aren’t learning anything from the story of Osama bin Laden. He was raised up by the CIA, but subsequently organized September 11 for his American benefactors. The polonium dirty bomb precedent could be repeated – and then it would be more difficult to find the enemy in Moscow.

Not for nothing has Berezovsky spoken repeatedly of the need for a “sacrificial victim.” Most likely, in dying as he did, Litvinenko saved the oligarch from possible extradition to Russia. The British special services outmaneuvered the defector. Once a traitor, always betrayed by others.