The Realpolitik of Murder

February 27, 2013
Women in Russia mourn the 2006 death by radiation poisoning of British national Alexander Litvinenko, likely at the hands of Kremlin agents. (AFP photo)

In Our Kind of Traitor, John Le Carré’s most recent spy novel, Dima, the “world’s number one money-launderer” for the Russian mob, befriends two British nationals on holiday in Antigua. He asks them to help him and his family defect to London in exchange for a freshet of juicy intelligence regarding where Russia’s corrupt elite meets Britain’s. Britain’s fine history of tolerating and harboring dissidents from authoritarian regimes must now be measured against the price of exposing foreign oligarchs and the British politicians and civil servants they’ve purchased. An ‘austerity’ economy means Her Majesty’s Government is even more reliant on the steady influx of unscrutinized rubles, and since where the Russian mob ends and the Russian state begins is no longer possible to discern, why would Britain take the chance of upsetting bilateral comity for the sake of poor Dima? You can guess how things end for him and his family.

Le Carré’s fiction is famously imaged on real-world events and his own experiences in the shadow-world of British espionage. His novel’s more colorful revelations about the hypocrisy governing the Anglo-Russian relationship will not have been lost on the Fleet Street hacks, the Foreign Office or, indeed, the City’s financial regulatory bodies. Even the Kremlin’s 2006 irradiation of a Russian national on MI6’s payroll, in broad daylight in central London, wasn’t enough to hinder that relationship irrevocably.

Earlier today, coroner Sir Robert Owen decided that the full facts in the inquest of Alexander Litvinenko’s death might never be known. This owes to the British government’s argument that disclosing them would harm “national security” and “international relations.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague has signed a Public Interest Immunity Certificate (PII), which he hopes will allow him to keep some information related to Litvinenko’s death a permanent secret. Sir Robert claims that he will subject Hague’s immunity argument to the “most stringent and critical examination,” yet he will do so alone, having rejected widow Marina Litvinenko’s request that her own special advocates be allowed to see what it is that the government is trying to hide. Seven years is a long time to wait to learn why your husband was murdered and what your adoptive country might have done to prevent it.

We do have a fair idea of what embarrasses the Foreign Office into silence. Last December, Ben Emmerson QC, Marina Litvinenko’s lawyer, disclosed that Alexander had been a paid agent of MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence agency, which then subcontracted him to work for the Spanish Security Services for the purpose of investigating the Russian mafia and its links to Vladimir Putin’s regime. Litvinenko had his own dedicated MI6 handler, a man identified only as “Martin,” with whom he met in October 2006, about a month before he was poisoned to death with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope, at the Millennium Hotel. The suspects in this murder are two former KGB agents themselves: Andrey Lugovoy (now safely ensconced in Russian parliament) and Dmitry Kovtun. Both will never be extradited to London answer for their crimes so long as Putin is in power. Yet Martin will no doubt know what measures, if any, were taken by MI6 to protect a valued and high-target asset.

As U.S. State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks demonstrate, Litvinenko had been working on something of eminent interest to British national security and international relations. His thesis, cited as credible by Jose Grinda Gonzalez, the Spanish special prosecutor for organized crime, at a meeting of the US-Spanish counterterrorism team in Madrid in 2010, was that Russian intelligence and the security services ran organized crime in Russia, making Putin more of a godfather or kingpin than a head of state. Moreover, as Lord Macdonald, Britain’s chief prosecutor in the Litvinenko case, concluded in 2011, the murder “had all the hallmarks of a state directed execution, committed on the streets of London by a foreign government.” That would make Russia guilty of executing a British spy on British soil.

The Foreign Office thus finds itself in the doubly awkward position of fending off not just a pertinacious wife who, to the further shame of Westminster, has had to incur the cost for her husband’s inquest herself, but of also fighting a rearguard action against the UK press. The Guardian, the Financial Times and the BBC all sent lawyers to petition Sir Robert on Tuesday to dismiss Hague’s PII on the grounds that the public most certainly has a right to know if more London residents are to be murdered by a trade partner and putative ally. Guardian attorney, Alex Bailin, said that the PII would not only let two killers off the hook but would give the Kremlin or its mobbed-up surrogates impunity to chase more of its asylum-seeking enemies abroad, as it seems to already be doing.

In November, a former member of a Russian crime syndicate who had lately turned informant to Swiss prosecutors was found dead of a heart attack outside his home in Surrey. He was 44 years old and in good health, yet a toxicology report, some four months on, has still not been made available. Alexander Perepilichnyy was no idle cop-whisperer: he was solely responsible for the windfall of documents pertaining to the $230 million tax fraud committed in 2008, which led to the arrest and murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing attorney whose name is now synonymous with an impressive U.S. law that sanctions and blacklists human rights abusers. (That law has predictably led to febrile and paranoid anti-Americanism from Moscow.) Thanks to Perepilichnyy’s evidence, several European governments have now managed to track and freeze the bogus tax rebate.

David Cameron’s Conservative Party votes in a bloc with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and when it was disclosed a few months ago that the Kremlin had authorized one of its ‘diplomats’ at the Russian embassy in London to concoct a Tory front group outfitted with public relations professionals and British MPs to further that alliance, the Conservative Party simply wished the scandal away. At last summer’s Olympic games, most observers reported, Cameron’s one-on-one with Putin over a judo tournament was devoted less to disagreements over Syria than to ensuring that a few murders abetted by the Kremlin didn’t stand in the way of bilateral trade.

So it is easy to sympathize with Ben Emmerson’s indictment of his own government as “dancing to the Russian tarantella,” and attempting to cover up a major human rights case and breach of national security for the sake of geopolitical expedience.

“What HMG is afraid of is the political and economic consequences of annoying Putin,” Alex Goldfarb, Litvinenko’s friend and posthumous defender told me last night. “It is realpolitik at the expense of justice and the rule of law, a form of corruption at the highest level. The government compromises on principles for economic interests.”