Brits Investigate Assassination of the Spy Who Warned Us About Putin

The Kremlin likely murdered a former KGB officer living in London with radioactive poison in 2007. The U.K. was too cozy with Russia to go after his killers—until now.

Natasja Weitsz/Getty

LONDON — Vladimir Putin thought he’d got away with murder. At least that was the conclusion of diplomats and security officials for eight years as Britain ignored demands for an inquiry into the assassination of a former KGB officer in Central London.

Alexander Litvinenko had angered the Kremlin with repeated claims that Putin was running a thuggish and brutal regime. He sought refuge in Britain and was granted asylum, but local police were powerless to prevent his assassination. He was struck down inside an upmarket London hotel by a rare radioactive poison that had been slipped in to his pot of tea.

Many suspected Moscow’s hand, and the victim’s family described his killing as “state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.” Scotland Yard investigators found a trail of radioactivity from the deadly polonium-210 isotope that led all the way back to the Moscow. The British government, however, steadfastly refused to sanction an inquiry into Russia’s involvement. That changed Tuesday when Theresa May, Britain’s Home Secretary, announced a full inquiry into Litvenenko’s murder just as global leaders were lining up to say that Putin has blood on his hands after the death of almost 300 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

For at least one death, Russia’s president will escape scrutiny no more. A public inquiry will be opened next week to examine whether the Russian state was behind the death of Litvinenko, a man who had previously accused the Kremlin of killing its own citizens and said he was investigating the death of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Eight years prior to today’s announcement, London’s relationship with Moscow was very different. The government had encouraged Russian money to pour into the country with an overhaul of tax and immigration rules that transformed the city into a haven for Russia’s super-rich generation of oligarchs. Wealthy Russians, both pro- and anti-Putin, moved their families and their bank accounts to Britain in order to protect them from Moscow’s erratic and lawless climate.

When Putin was accused of extending his system of recriminations to reach into the heart of London, the British government appeared reluctant to challenge him openly. Relations were already strained by the sheer quantity of wealth that had been transferred out of Russia, and the number of dissidents who had been granted asylum in Britain.

The British government admitted for the first time earlier this year that the murder investigation had been curbed for political reasons. “It is true that international relations have been a factor in the Government’s decision-making,” May conceded.

If Putin took this as evidence that no one would dare to call him out for murder, who could blame him?

When Russia’s football team traveled to London for a crucial game against England in September 2007, one of the Russian fans marched around Wembley Stadium cloaked in a Russian flag, wearing a T-shirt that bore the legend: “Polonium-210.”

He was celebrating the most brazen murder of a Russian dissident since the end of the Cold War; a murder that had taken place less than a mile from Buckingham Palace with seemingly no repercussions from the British authorities. No wonder Russian nationalists thought it was worthy of celebration.

Even the details of an official call for a full inquiry had been hushed up by the British government. During a High Court appeal in January this year, it emerged that Sir Robert Owen, who was appointed as Litvinenko’s coroner, had been making a powerful case behind closed doors. He had concluded that documents held by the British government “establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state in the death of Alexander Litvinenko”. He told senior officials that an inquest was not powerful enough to handle the kind of allegations he needed to explore.

Today he was appointed chairman of an inquiry that will begin on July 31. The inquiry, most of which will be heard in public, should be completed by the end of next year. Owen will have the power to compel the production of witnesses and documents from the British security and intelligence services.

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Obviously, he will have no such power to demand the appearance of Russian officials and intelligence officers. Back in 2007, Britain’s office of public prosecutions recommended that former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun be charged with murder. Moscow said the men, who deny responsibility, would not be extradited to London for trial under any circumstances.

Scotland Yard felt they had more than enough evidence for a prosecution. Polonium-210 may have seemed like the perfect murder weapon due to its colorless and odorless properties and its gradual but devastating impact on the health of a human being. Even airport scanners, which are set up to detect radioactive gamma rays, miss the alpha rays given off by this radioactive isotope. Because it was such an unusual poison, the killers may have felt it was unlikely that medical staff would know to test for it.

The slow, painful death of Litvinenko, 43, who had been working for MI6, was curious enough, however, for authorities to keep probing until they successfully identified the radioactivity that was killing the former KGB agent from the inside.

Once the polonium had been recognized, police were able to trace the source of the poison to the Millennium hotel in Mayfair. Lugovoi and Kovtun had met Litvinenko there for tea on November 1, ten days before he was admitted to Barnet General Hospital in North London.

From the tea rooms of the Millennium hotel, Scotland Yard followed the trail; tracing back over Lugovoi’s apparent itinerary from Heathrow airport, to the Abracadabra lap-dancing club and the Emirates soccer stadium, where he had watched Arsenal play CSKA Moscow in a Champions League game.

Traces of the isotope were also found on return flights from Russia, inside the British embassy in Moscow and in a flat in Hamburg linked to Kovtun.

Many years after this evidence was collected Sir Richard Ottaway, the chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, admitted the timing of today’s announcement was “a bit quirky” given the current pressure on Putin. Downing Street denied that there was any connection.

In truth, it was Marina Litvinenko who made it happen. Faced with a recalcitrant government she sought assistance in the courts, and it was her victorious appeal at the High Court earlier this year that forced the government into a u-turn on behalf of her slain husband, a man she called Sasha. “I am relieved and delighted with this decision. It sends a message to Sasha’s murderers: no matter how strong and powerful you are, truth will win out in the end and you will be held accountable for your crimes.”

If Western governments are too weak to hold Putin to account, the only hope lies in the families of his many victims.