LONDON — Britain has formally warned the United States and its global network of allies to be on the lookout for brazen state-sponsored assassins with Russian accents.
After exotic, KGB-linked murders on the streets of London that span four decades, Britain should know.
The radioactive poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko came a generation after another dissident was struck down in broad daylight by a powerful toxin.
Like the CIA’s exploding cigar plot to kill Fidel Castro, the Russian security services have relied heavily on British stereotypes for inspiration.
The nuclear byproduct used to kill Litvinenko was placed inside a teapot; in 1978 a Bulgarian exile was killed by a pellet of ricin hidden in the tip of an umbrella.
An inquiry into the death of Litvinenko that was published this week found conclusively that the assassination was ordered by the FSB—the KGB’s post-Soviet reincarnation. A retired High Court judge, who oversaw the inquest, said Vladimir Putin had “probably” approved the operation personally.
Britain was initially reluctant to hold the public inquiry, but its findings—which link the Kremlin to seven recent assassinations—have now forced the cloak-and-dagger world of international espionage out of the movies and into the news bulletins.
“Although not often discussed in public, our security and intelligence agencies have always—dating back to their roots in the first and second world wars—had the protection of the U.K. from state threats at the heart of their mission,” admitted Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who is responsible for Britain’s security and intelligence. “We have to accept that this does not come as a surprise.”
Russia daring to commit murder on the sovereign soil of a major Western nation was nothing new.
As well as publicly pointing the finger at Moscow over Litvinenko, May wrote to her counterparts in Europe, NATO and the so-called “Five Eyes” network, made up of Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. She said she needed to draw “their attention to both the report and the need to take steps to prevent such a murder being committed in their streets.”
The assassination of Litvinenko, a former KGB and FSB spy, in 2006 is not even thought to be Russia’s most recent plot to kill in Britain.
Sir Robert Owen’s inquiry also highlighted an attempt on the life of Boris Berezovsky, a high-profile opposition leader who had employed Litvinenko.
Years earlier, when he was a senior figure in the FSB, Litvinenko had been ordered to kill Berezovsky himself—his refusal signaled the end of a promising career in the Russian security services.
In the summer of 2007, Scotland Yard apparently foiled an assassination attempt by a Chechen named Movladi Atlangeriev. “The Metropolitan Police Service possessed intelligence that he had come to the UK to assassinate Mr Berezovsky. He did indeed attempt to meet Mr Berezovsky, but was arrested and deported,” Owen wrote. “Leading opponents of President Putin, including those living outside Russia, were at risk of assassination.”
Berezovsky’s body was found hanged in his home in 2013. Family members and associates claimed he did not kill himself but the coroner found no evidence of foul play.
That was also the initial response of the British authorities when Russian whistleblower Alexander Perepilichnyy collapsed and died while running near his suburban home outside London in November 2012.
Four years later, the investigation into his death continues, but last year a botanical expert identified traces in his body of Gelsemium elegans—a deadly plant found in the mountainous regions of Asia. This poisonous plant known as “heartbreak grass” was identified as a potential murder weapon by Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1870s, but has been used only rarely in the intervening generations.
Perepilichnyy had been due to give evidence in a notorious $200 million fraud case against Russian officials.
Sergei Magnitsky, 37, a lawyer involved in the same lawsuit, died mysteriously while in Russian custody. The Kremlin’s official Human Rights Council said he was found with broken fingers and bruising to his body and may have suffered a brutal beating.
The U.S. House of Representatives was so appalled by Magnitsky’s death that they passed the Magnitsky Act, which placed sanctions on those accused of complicity. “Corrupt thugs who attack whistleblowers and human-rights activists will be held to account in America, if not Russia,” said Devin Nunes, a Republican representative from California.
The death of Perepilichnyy in a leafy British suburb remains unexplained, but the inquest will reopen later this year to hear evidence that he was deliberately killed with this “heartbreak grass,” a poison previously linked to Chinese and Russian contract killers.
The Litvinenko inquiry heard evidence from a witness, who cannot be named for security reasons and was referred to as “D3,” who said he had spoken to Litvinenko’s killer, Dmitry Kovtun, about the Kremlin’s modus operandi.
The report said: “Mr Kovtun told D3 during their conversation in Hamburg that Mr Litvinenko was to be poisoned rather than shot because, ‘It is meant to set an example.’”
Rare leaf or radioactive isotope, there is an unmistakable swagger in the planning of these murders.
Until the pattern was resumed in the modern era, the most famous example was the death of Georgi Markov—the Bulgarian dissident whose life ended at the point of an umbrella in 1978.
Markov was a regular and outspoken critic of the Communist regime in Bulgaria, often appearing on the radio from London after defecting from behind the Iron Curtain.
One evening, when was on the way home from the BBC, he felt a sharp sting on his leg as he waited for a bus on Waterloo Bridge. An umbrella clattered the to the ground and a man picked it back up before disappearing into a taxi.
“I can’t believe people go round stabbing other people with umbrellas,” his wife said at the time.
The identities of people who would do such a thing remained a mystery for decades. In 1990, the Russian double-agent Oleg Gordievski revealed that the KGB had supplied the poison and developed the James Bond-style umbrella gun.
They had given it to their Eastern Bloc counterparts in Communist Bulgaria. Leaked Bulgarian documents showed in 2005 that a Danish assassin had been hired as the umbrella carrier.
Markov could see a small red mark on his leg, but he had no idea that a tiny pellet of ricin had been fired beneath his skin. He had developed a fever by the time he got home that night and, within four days, he was dead.