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UK Litvinenko Report Struggles to Implicate Russia, Ends Up Clearing It

While the UK government seeks to implicate Russia in the death of Alexander Litvinenko, its recent report has the opposite effect


This post first appeared on Russia Insider

On 21 January 2016 the UK government issued a report following an inquiry into the 2006 death in London of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko. The report accuses two Russian nationals of murdering Litvinenko, something that was, as the report puts it, “probably” approved by top Russian leadership. While the report seeks to implicate Russia in the death of Litvinenko, its use of the meaningless weasel phrase “probably approved” has the opposite effect. It is clear that the inquiry has reasonably failed to find a Russian connection.

The inquiry's flawed foundations

The manner and circumstances of the report undermine its own conclusions.

Inquiries such as Litvinenko’s have numerous limitations. They are conducted within the narrow limits of UK governmental bureaucracy, and as such they exhibit scant ability to discover truth. Not being court proceedings, they feature none of the safeguards and procedures necessary to establish truth independently. Hearing the parties or witnesses, compelling disclosure, or standards of proof are not in their toolbox. Essentially, all they normally do is regurgitate whatever information the government feeds them.

It is notable that by law such inquiries are not meant to investigate crimes or resolve legal disputes. These may only be decided by a court of law. Otherwise an inquiry could be used to obviate due process of law. For that reason the law expressly prohibits an inquiry to decide on legal liability. An inquiry's potential to be abused as kangaroo courts by the government is widely recognized and has attracted much criticism. It is a factor that makes reputable judges stay away. By contrast, those with a political agenda or eager to score points with Downing Street are anxious to serve on an inquiry.

The Litvinenko inquiry was especially affected by these shortcomings. It was beset by a conflict of interest, commissioned and controlled as it was by the UK government, a party with a clear self-interest in the matter. The government had an obvious interest in advancing a version of events suppressing its involvement in Litvinenko’s death and giving prominence to that implicating Russia. It couldn’t be seriously expected that the government would find against itself.

Besides, linking Russia to Litvinenko’s death provides a valuable instrument of political pressure as Russia refuses to follow the West’s line on Syria and Ukraine. Notably the inquiry went ahead in July 2014, a time when the conflict in Ukraine reached a critical stage. Obviously the current US administration needs all the help it can get to whip Russia into line, and London is keen to oblige.

It is remarkable that even in such circumstances judge Richard Owen, who headed the inquiry, could not unambiguously implicate Russia’s leadership in Litvinenko’s death. The judge faced an impossible task. He needed to link Litvinenko’s death to Russia while lacking any basis for doing so within the framework of the inquiry. So he settled for a smear job. He solved that problem by inserting the meaningless phrase that the Russian leadership “probably” approved the murder of Litvinenko. This raises the reasonable question: how probably? Perhaps probably, but not necessarily so? Does the judge even understand that “probably approved” equally means “probably did not approve”?

A theory beyond far-fetched

Litvinenko was a mid-level FSB employee who defected to the UK in 2000. Apparently he first had offered to sell whatever secrets he had to the CIA, but was refused. Presumably his goods were not worth much to the Americans. In London he found sponsors among self-exiled Russians, dividing his time between churning out pamphlets with outlanding charges against the Russian government and collaborating with MI6, a UK secret service. As his literary ventures failed to generate much readership and his sponsors lost interest in him, Litvinenko apparently turned to a line he thought more profitable: smuggling radioactive material into the UK, thus contaminating and killing himself in the process.

As Litvinenko lay on his deathbed, his sponsors used him to attack Russia. They accused Putin of having Litvinenko poisoned by radioactive polonium, supposedly brought from Russia by Russian nationals Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun. That story neatly played to that of MI6, deflecting any scrutiny from its role in Litvinenko’s doings. It also conveniently implicated Lugovoy and Kovtun, who later complained of MI6 trying to recruit them while in in the UK.

The UK official version of Russians murdering Litvinenko is that reproduced in the inquiry report.

Yet, given what we know about Litvinenko and his activities at this time, it is apparent that the polonium smuggling theory makes the most sense. By contrast, the inquiry's version of Litvinenko having been murdered on Kremlin’s order shows gaping holes, including the complete lack of motive for Putin to kill Litvinenko. His stories of Putin blowing up Russia lacked any credibility, and in any event the damage had already been done. The more improbable were Litvinenko’ stories the less threatening he was to the Russians. So what the inquiry needed to show was a compelling reason why Putin wanted, needed or otherwise was sufficiently impelled to go to the cost and trouble of having Litvinenko killed, and in a manner conveniently implicating the Kremlin and ruling out all other suspects.  

Plugging the holes

Owen tried to plug the gaps in his report by multiplying improbable assumptions. Bizarrely he posited that Putin wanted (needed?) to kill Litvinenko because the man knew that Putin destroyed certain materials that could have been used against him. So according to the judge, Putin would have Litvinenko killed not over his ability to produce the materials or even his knowledge of them, but over his knowledge of their non-existence. That is hardly a credible motive. By that thinking Putin had equal reason to go after almost anybody on earth.

In short, as written, the inquiry report amounts to nothing less than a clean bill of health to Russia and its political leadership. It is also perhaps a sign of desperation of some in the West who are tying themselves up in knots trying to square this particular circle.


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