Still Putin's problem.

Photographer: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Putin's Reputation Turns Radioactive

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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It isn't often that a judge in one country accuses the president of another -- a superpower, no less -- of participating in murder. On Thursday, however, the chairman of a lengthy U.K. inquiry into the 2006 poisoning of a former Russian intelligence operative, Alexander Litvinenko, did just that.

Vladimir Putin

The words that Sir Robert Owen used to conclude his report are so extraordinary they're worth quoting:

Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me, I find that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev and also by President Putin.

Owen was referring, of course, to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as to Nikolai Patrushev, then head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and now secretary of the Russian security council. The judge also said he was "sure" Litvinenko was killed by the radioactive polonium-210 isotope found in his body, and that this was administered by two ex-FSB colleagues he met for tea in London's ritzy Mayfair district.

Litvinenko's murder is one of the most publicly investigated in history, so much of what's in the report isn't new. But to have a recently retired British High Court judge say he is "sure" (for which read "beyond a reasonable doubt") about the guilt of Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun is a sobering moment for the U.K. -- and should be just as serious for Russia. Since the murder, Putin has personally honored Lugovoi, who has been turned into a national hero and senior member of the Russian parliament.

Just as widely accepted outside Russia is the finding that the two men were working on the orders of the FSB. But to say the hit was "probably" ordered by Putin takes quite a leap. It's a finding that Owen based on testimony from witnesses he acknowledges to have been biased, and from the historian Robert Service, about the way in which Russia's hierarchy works.

There are two things to say on this. The first is that Owen seems to have been more willing than he should to believe everything told him by Litvinenko's shady circle of ex-FSB friends. He relies in part on their accounts to establish the Kremlin's motive for murder. These include a book about a series of 1999 apartment bombings around Russia that triggered the second Chechen War and helped propel Putin to the presidency. Litvinenko and his friends maintain these weren't carried out by Chechen terrorists, as generally believed, but by the FSB. Much remains unexplained about those bombings, but the case has hardly been proved to a level that could be used in any court of law. Even so, Owen says:

On the evidence I heard, the book was more than a political tract – it was the product of careful research. Professor Service’s view was that the two men had “credibly investigated” the issue and, although their contentions about it had not been “proved 100 percent,” he considered they were more likely than not to be accurate. He said that: “the Felshtinsky and Litvinenko book piled up the evidence pointing a very damaging finger at the FSB and its involvement in those explosions.”

The second thing to say is that most people outside Russia will, like the judge, conclude in their gut that Putin approved Litvinenko's assassination. It has come to fit their expectations of what Russia and its leader do.

Already, Russia has dismissed the findings as politically motivated and warned of "serious consequences" to its relations with the U.K. Yet the only way Putin will persuade the rest of the world to accept his word over Owen's is to send Lugovoi and Kovtun to face trial in the U.K. Nothing else will do -- and nothing is less likely to happen.

Equally, although U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May told parliament on Thursday that Russia would face a tough response, it won't. May at first resisted holding an independent inquiry, precisely because it would highlight the U.K.'s inability to punish Russia for committing murder in the streets of London.

Putin shouldn't be too smug, though. The story of the last years has been one of his steady descent from a leader welcomed and even feted around the world, to one whose hand is shaken only reluctantly. The belief is that he is a man who orders assassinations in supposedly friendly nations, sends troops to invade supposedly fraternal neighbors and denies everything when those troops shoot down a passenger airliner.

These concerns probably won't hurt Putin domestically. Yet they are forcing him ever further into the defensive crouch of an ordinary dictator, one who may be popular for now but will never be able to afford the risk of genuine elections because of the retribution he might face on losing office. It is a sad story considering the possibilities Putin had -- and for a while seemed to grasp -- when he came to power 16 years ago.

(Corrects name of U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May in 11th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net