In what resembles a real-world James Bond plot gone wrong, a former Russian agent-turned-dissident was killed in 2006 while in England. Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB secret service member, died of Polonium-210 poisoning after moved to the UK following his disclosure that the FSB was engaged in assassinations, had ties to the mob, conducted terrorist attacks, and was a corrupt arm of the Putin government. Immediately following his death, his widow and many Russia watchers suspected that the Russia government was involved in his death.
Last week, the British government blocked a coroner’s investigation and said that there would be no public inquiry into the death of Litvinenko. Home Secretary Theresa May even admitted that the UK’s relationship with Russia factored into that decision:
In a letter to Coroner Sir Robert Owen explaining why she had refused his request to hold an inquiry instead of an inquest, Home Secretary Theresa May said: “It is true that international relations have been a factor in the Government’s decision-making.
“An inquest managed and run by an independent coroner is more readily explainable to some of our foreign partners, and the integrity of the process more readily grasped, than an inquiry, established by the Government, under a chairman appointed by the Government, which has the power to see Government material potentially relevant to their interests, in secret.
“However this has not been a decisive factor and it if had stood alone would not have led the Government to refuse an inquiry.”
This was the first admission that realpolitik is a major motivator in the UK’s response to the Litvinenko case (see The Interpreter’s investigation, The Realpolitik of Murder).
There has already been an investigation into Litvinenko’s death, and British authorities have accused Andrey Lugovoy, a Russian politician and former KGB agent, of possessing the polonium-210 that was used to kill Litvinenko. Russia has refused to extradite Lugovoy, however, citing a lack of evidence from the British government – evidence that the UK says it has already turned over.
However, the scandal doesn’t just implicate Lugovoy. Since the earliest stages of Litvinenko’s poisoning, the Russian government has been implicated, if not directly, in the Litvinenko murder. This newest inquiry, started in 2011, was designed to investigate the wider implications about Litvinenko. Could more evidence pressure Russia to turn over Lugovoy? Could Lugovoy’s employer, whether it be a government official or agency, or someone else, be tied directly to the murder?
Surely, however, Russia was not the only one with secrets in danger here. When a former Russian spy goes rogue and starts blurting out secrets, Russia’s opponents are at least as interested as human rights groups (just as America’s opponents are drooling over Snowden). It has long been established that Litvinenko was cooperating with MI5 and MI6, and in documents that have been made public on Litvinenko, large sections are covered in black ink.
In other words, the UK has decided that it will never be able to try Lugovoy for murder, so it’s not worth potentially leaking its own secrets, alienating Russia, or possibly incurring retribution against its own spies.
However, it is a mistake to focus on the Litvinenko-as-spy narrative. It’s likely that the UK, the United States, and probably dozens of other countries have spies, whose names we’ll likely never know, who are working to crack Russian state secrets. Litvinenko wasn’t killed because he was a spy. He was killed because he was a dissident, airing Russia’s dirtiest laundry in public, not in some top-secret briefing but in high-profile books, and he knew that Russian security services were working with organized crime across Europe, not just inside Russia.
We also know that other high-profile dissidents have been killed before. We’ve extensively covered the death of Sergei Magnitsky, killed the day before he was set to be released from prison. Furthermore, another Russian-underworld-member-turned-informant, Alexander Perepilichny, was working with Hermitage Capital’s William Browder, Magnitsky’s former client, to expose criminal activities conducted by the Klyuev Group crime syndicate implicated in Magnitsky’s investigation. He was also working with Swiss prosecutors to expose the related Russian money-laundering schemes. In November, Perepilichny, a healthy 44-year old, died of mysterious circumstances. Police now say that he died of natural causes, and that the details have been passed to a coroner, but they haven’t been made public. As The Guardian notes, his life was in danger before he died:
Perepilichnyy adopted a deliberately low profile in the UK. All that changed during the summer of 2010, when he decided to follow the lead set by Magnitsky and handed over evidence and details of the Credit Suisse accounts. Hermitage in turn passed them to the Swiss police, sparking an ongoing international inquiry that has spread to six countries and resulted in the accounts of alleged Russian fraudsters being frozen.
Perepilichnyy’s act put him in grave danger. By the time he went for his final jog last November, the threats against him were mounting. One corrupt official allegedly involved in the fraud against Hermitage warned “the financial wizard” to stop running scared in England because he owed money to “scores of creditors”. Even the alleged killers of Litvinenko joined the long list of those with a potential motive. One of the suspects wanted for trial over the murder of the former KGB spy is among those understood to have launched legal action against Perepilichnyy, accusing him of failing to pay back debts. Perepilichnyy told business contacts in London that Moscow police agents had informed him his name was on the “hit list” of Chechen assassin groups for hire and that they had accumulated a dossier with details of his life in Surrey.
A former Russian contractor, Valery Morozov, who was granted asylum in England after also blowing the whistle on Russian corruption, told the BBC that Perepilichnyy was on a hit-list.
“There is a hit list, I was told, which was found by the Russian home ministry, by the Russian police, and in this list there are from eight to 10 Russian citizens living in London.”
Morozov says he has also been questioned by police, who are worried that he might also be targeted. British police raised questions about Perepilichnyy’s death, not because they saw obvious signs of foul play, but because they see the patterns and are concerned that Russia is executing informants and dissidents on British soil. The United States and its allies, including the UK, have blocked Magnitsky’s suspected killers from entering their respective countries because they believe that members of the Russian government killed Magnitsky to keep him quiet and to discourage future public disclosures of corruption. In other words, officials at all levels of government have expressed concerns about Russia’s tactics.
Somehow, however, those fears are being deprioritized over concerns of the UK’s own state secrets, and any international fallout that might result if the UK directly accused Russia of assassinating someone on foreign soil. In the process, however, they may also granting Russia a ‘license to kill’ the next Russian expatriate who embarrasses the Kremlin or exposes fraud.