Deny, deny, deny.

Photographer: Natasja Weitsz Collection: Getty Images News

Guns, Poison and Putin's KGB State

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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The U.K. inquiry into the 2006 poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko begins final arguments on Monday. Most of the evidence produced in the hearings was known years ago. But seeing it meticulously laid out again now, after Russia's semi-covert war in Ukraine and the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, it's impossible not to notice a chilling pattern.

Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium-210, a rare radioactive isotope. For years the U.K. sought the extradition of two Russian men -- Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun -- who met Litvinenko for tea on the day he was poisoned. And for years Russia has refused.

Indeed, last Sunday -- a day before the inquiry was to examine Lugovoi's single interview with British police in Moscow -- President Vladimir Putin awarded him a medal "for services to the fatherland" in Russia's parliament, where he is now a legislator. As an MP, Lugovoi -- a former KGB agent, Kremlin bodyguard and protection service entrepreneur -- enjoys immunity from prosecution.

The way that Russia has aided Lugovoi to deny, muddy and discredit the array of evidence that British authorities believe ties him to the murder echoes its more recent obfuscations -- from its denial of any involvement in the war in Ukraine (despite the evident presence of its tanks, anti-aircraft systems and troops), to its multiple baseless theories to obscure evidence that a Russian anti-aircraft system shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine last year.

Before getting to the Russian responses to Litvinenko's poisoning, though, it's worth repeating the key facts as detailed by witnesses in the 24 days of hearings to date.

Lugovoi was waiting for Litvinenko at London's upmarket Millennium Hotel on Nov. 1, 2006, the day of his fatal poisoning. When his guest arrived, Lugovoi said there wasn't time to order more drinks, but Litvinenko could pour himself tea from a pot already on the table, which he did. The tea pot and its spout were later tested and found to be heavily irradiated. Traces of radiation were also found on clothes hangers and elsewhere in Lugovoi and Kovtun's hotel rooms, in cars they used, offices they visited, a stadium where they went to watch a soccer game and planes they traveled on.

The members of the inquiry heard how Litvinenko was probably poisoned twice, the first time in mid-October, when he merely vomited afterwards. Then, too, he had just met with Lugovoi and Kovtun. Again traces of radiation were found in the office they visited, as well as a night club.

An expert witness explained that the heavily secured state nuclear facility in the central Russian town of Sarov (previously known as Arzamas-16) "is the only place in the world where there is a polonium-210 production line," and that no reactor elsewhere could be made to produce the quantity Litvinenko ingested.

So how have Lugovoi and Russia responded to all this circumstantial evidence?

When British police spent two and a half weeks in Moscow to interview Lugovoi and Kovtun in December 2006, they were allowed an hour and 36 minutes with Lugovoi and 13 minutes with Kovtun. Only one British investigator was permitted to be present at each interview and they were forbidden to bring tape recorders.

Both men had to be interviewed in the hospital, where they were said to be seriously ill with radiation sickness. The British interviewers found the men looked very healthy -- unlike Litvinenko they weren't pale or weak or losing their hair. Lugovoi was wearing designer street clothes under his hospital gown. When Russian prosecutors handed over transcripts and the tapes they had made from the interviews, Lugovoi's tape was blank. At least one passage the British interviewer had written in his notes was missing from the transcript.

Germany wanted to test for radiation on the Aeroflot plane that flew Kovtun from Moscow to Hamburg on Oct. 28, where he stayed overnight with his ex-wife before flying to London. The ex-wife's home and car were found to be contaminated with radiation. But when the Aeroflot plane arrived for testing, it was a different aircraft. The correct one was never made available.

Lugovoi maintains he was framed in a "conspiracy to slur Russia and the Kremlin." He has produced no less than five alternative theories for who killed Litvinenko: The British intelligence services; Boris Berezovsky (the London-based former Russian oligarch Lugovoi claims Litvinenko wanted to blackmail); the Russian mafia in Spain; Litvinenko himself, by accident; or suicide.

Lugovoi's approach elicits a sense of deja vu. Immediately after Nemtsov was shot dead beside the walls of the Kremlin last month, Putin's spokesman and Russian officials also listed a whole array of implausible scenarios for the assassination -- though not, of course, any that might implicate the state.

The reckless character of this exotic killing in a major foreign capital also feels familiar. Like Nemtsov's shooting in the closely watched area outside the Kremlin, it shocked with its boldness. So did last year's annexation of Crimea by Russia's "little green men," and Russia's aggressive buzzing of NATO airspace since the Ukraine crisis began.

Equally striking is the predominance of former and current intelligence officers in the cast of characters involved in the Litvinenko inquiry -- right up to Putin, whom Litvinenko accused from his death bed (and himself has been missing for days among rumors of a power struggle among security services). The picture that emerges is of a KGB state run by and for the intelligence services and their allies.

By 2006, for example, Litvinenko, who fled the intelligence service and Russia in 2000, was writing due-diligence investigations for Yuri Shvets, another former KGB official, who had emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s. Shvets told the inquiry that around Sept. 20 -- just weeks before the poisonings -- Litvinenko had sent Lugovoi a copy of a report he and Shvets had just made on Viktor Ivanov, a former top Russian intelligence official and now deputy head of the presidential staff in Moscow. Ivanov is one of Putin's closest and oldest associates.

Litvinenko's report alleged that Ivanov was tied to the Tambovsky mafia when he ran the FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence service, in St. Petersburg. It also claimed that Putin -- while working in the office of the St. Petersburg mayor in the 1990s -- was involved in the narcotics trade. Even if untrue, this was potentially explosive material. Shvets said he was convinced Litvinenko signed his own death warrant by sending that report to Lugovoi, a man Litvinenko trusted but who in Shvet's view was still working with the FSB.

Without Lugovoi and Kovtun to put in front of a jury, it's unlikely the Litvinenko case will ever be fully solved. But that, for Russia’s KGB state -- or today the FSB state -- is the goal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net