Putin 'Probably' Approved Litvinenko Murder, U.K. Judge Says

Updated on
  • Former Russian spy died in 2006 after drinking radioactive tea
  • Russia says case was `politicized' and `soured' relationship

Russian President Vladimir Putin“probably” approved the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, using two government agents to poison the dissident spy, according to a London judge.

Forensic evidence indicates Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun killed Litvinenko by spiking his tea with a rare radioactive substance, most likely under the direction of the FSB security service, Judge Robert Owen said in the report published in London Thursday.

Alexander Litvinenko at the Intensive Care Unit of University College Hospital

Photographer: Natasja Weitsz/Getty Images

"Members of the Putin administration, including the president himself and the FSB, had motives for taking action against Mr. Litvinenko, including killing him," Owen said. "President Putin’s conduct towards Mr. Lugovoi suggests a level of approval for the killing."

Litvinenko, a critic of the Kremlin who lived in the U.K. capital, died about three weeks after ingesting the radioactive polonium. The 44-year-old blamed his death on Putin in an impassioned statement from his hospital bed.

“All the evidence points in one direction,” Owen said in a summary. “When they killed Mr. Litvinenko, they were acting on behalf of someone else.”

Strained Relations

Since the inquiry began in January 2015, Anglo-Russian diplomatic relations have sunk to their lowest point since the Cold War and Thursday’s report may further strain the relationship. The investigation pored over CCTV footage that retraced Litvinenko’s final weeks, and examined his complicated relationships with British spy agencies and oligarchs.

“We regret that a purely criminal case was politicized and soured the overall atmosphere in the bilateral relations,” Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said in a statement. “It’s evident that halting the coroner’s inquiry and starting ‘public hearings’ had a clear political motivation.”

The Russian currency was 3.6 percent weaker at 84.487 per dollar after the announcement. It earlier fell to a record 85.999.

U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May condemned Russia’s failure to bring those responsible to justice over the years. Both Lugovoi and Kovtun have had their assets frozen, she said in a statement.

“This was a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and civilized behavior,” May said in the House of Commons. "We have and will continue to demand that the Russian government account for the role of the FSB in this case.”

Since 2010 “Russia has become more authoritarian, aggressive and nationalist,” May said. “We must protect the U.K. and her interests from Russia-based threats, working closely with our allies in the EU and NATO.”


The original inquest into Litvinenko’s death started in 2006 and then adjourned pending criminal investigations. A subsequent inquest in 2013 was held back by procedural delays and its investigative powers were limited by national-security concerns.

RIA Novosti reported that Russia sees serious consequences for ties with the U.K. after the verdict, citing an unidentified person who called the verdict “illegitimate.”

“The appearance of this report in this context, with names, is very serious, said analyst Alexei Makarkin of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “It’s another question how the British government will react to this. There could be harsher measures or less severe ones.”

It could be another knock into Russia’s reputation after Moscow-backed rebels were accused of July 2014 downing of a Malaysian airliner over southeastern Ukraine, he said.

Radiation Trail

The murder was “an attack on the heart of Britain, our values and our society,” the leader of the opposition Liberal Democrat party, Tim Farron, said in an e-mailed statement. “I call for EU travel bans, asset freezes and coordinated action to deal with those who committed this evil assassination.”

On his deathbed Litvinenko told London police he suspected Lugovoi and Kovtun were responsible for his poisoning as they had meet several weeks earlier in an upmarket hotel. Later forensic tests showed the three men left a trail of polonium across London.

"It would appear that Mr. Litvinenko was alive to the possibility that he had been deliberately poisoned from the first days of his illness," Owen said in the report, which has taken around six months to publish. Litvinenko lived an "eventful" life when he moved to the U.K. in 2000, he said.

"The evidence suggest that in the course of such activities, and just as he had in Russia, Mr. Litvinenko may have made some dangerous enemies," Owen wrote.

Army Training

Litvinenko trained with the Russian army and was recruited into the KGB spy agency in 1987. He served with the agency in the first Chechen conflict and was allegedly responsible for war crimes, said Robin Tam, a lawyer for the inquiry.

The spy stayed with the agency as it was broken up after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and later formed into the Federal Security Service, or FSB. Before his death, Litvinenko was close to Boris Berezovsky, a one-time billionaire who was found hanging dead in a bathroom in his house outside London in 2013.

Litvinenko exposed a plot in the 1990s by Russian authorities to murder Berezovsky, announcing it at a press conference in Russia. This was an act that his former FSB colleagues considered to be a “gross betrayal,” Tam said. The former spy pointed to Moscow after being poisoned.

“I am, of course, very pleased that the words my husband spoke on his death bed when he accused Mr. Putin of his murder have been proved true in an English court with the highest standards of independence and fairness,” his wife, Marina Litvinenko, said outside the court Thursday. She said all Russian intelligence officers should be removed from the Russian embassy in London and for targeted economic and travel sanctions at those responsible.

Full Report: The Litvinenko Inquiry

— With assistance by Thomas Penny, and Anton Doroshev

(Updates with Theresa May's statement from the ninth paragraph.)
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