Alexander Litvinenko at a press conference
By now the whole world has heard about the poisoning of ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who ingested a fatal dose of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 three weeks ago. Most American and British commentators have focused suspicion on the Kremlin, which allegedly wanted to end Litvinenko's investigation into the recent murder of the Russian opposition journalist Anna Politovskaya. One month before he was poisoned, Litvinenko had publicly accused President Putin of ordering Politovskaya's death.
Several British newspapers have suggested that rogue FSB agents may have acted without the Kremlin's knowledge to kill a man they regarded as a traitor and to intimidate future defectors. This theory has been advanced by Oleg Gordievsky, himself the highest level KGB defector to defect during the Cold War, who was a friend of Litvinenko.
For their part, Russian media outlets have quoted government sources blaming Boris Berezovsky or other exiled oligarchs for killing Litvinenko as well as Politovskaya, in order to pin their deaths on the Kremlin. "The excessive number of calculated coincidences between the deaths of people, who defined themselves as the opposition to the Russian authorities, and major international events involving Vladimir Putin is a source of concern," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a top Kremlin aide, told the ITAR-TASS news agency. "I am far from believing in the conspiracy theory, but, in this case, I think that we are witnessing a well-rehearsed plan of the consistent discrediting of the Russian Federation and its chief."
Litvinenko worked for the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky
At the time of his death, Mr. Litvinenko had been on Boris Berezovsky's payroll for several years. The relationship between the two men started in the mid-1990s, when Litvinenko was a Lieutenant Colonel serving in an elite FSB unit set up to combat the Russian mafia. In 1998, Litvinenko claimed that his FSB bosses ordered him to kill the powerful oligarch. Litvinenko instead called a press conference and announced the alleged assassination plot to the world, ending his FSB career. Litvinenko was subsequently charged with abusing his office and spent several months in jail awaiting trial. After being acquitted in 2000, he faced another trial and fled to exile in London, where Boris Berezovsky welcomed him with open arms. The oligarch funded Litvinenko's explosive 2002 book, Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within, in which he claimed that the FSB was behind a series of apartment bombings that triggered the second Chechen War in 1999, when Putin directed the agency. In 2005, Litvinenko not only accused Russian security services of killing Anna Politovskaya, but also of training the Chechen terrorists who carried out the Beslan school massacre.
Berezovsky maintains that only a powerful security service like Russia's FSB could obtain polonium 210, the rare radioactive isotope that was used to poison Litvinenko. Polonium 210 was used in the Soviet space program and is produced in potentially fatal quantities at a few closely guarded nuclear facilities around the world. The isotope is only lethal to human beings when ingested, injected, or absorbed through an open wound.
Scotland Yard investigators have detected polonium 210 traces at Litvinenko's residence, at a sushi restaurant, at a hotel where he met his contacts, and at Berezovsky's home and offices in London. British police sources have been quoted as saying that Mr. Litvinenko had many enemies in Russia and that they are pursuing all leads in the case, including the possibility of suicide.
Exiled oligarch Leonid Nevzlin claimed this week that Litvinenko was investigating the destruction of Yukos
Adding another layer of complexity to the investigation this week was Leonid Nevzlin, another exiled oligarch, who claimed that Litvinenko was investigating the Kremlin's destruction of the Russian oil company Yukos in 2005. Nevzlin, a former business partner to the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, currently resides in Israel, where he fled charges of tax evasion and murder in Russia. Last summer Oleg Pichugin, Nevzlin and Khodorkovsky's former chief of security for Yukos, was sentenced to twenty years in prison for multiple counts of murder.
Before the high profile murders of Politovskaya and Litvinenko, both Berezovsky and Nevzlin faced the threat of extradition back to Russia. In August, Russian federal prosecutors presented state's evidence against the oligarchs to their counterparts in Britain and to a group of influential Israeli lawyers in Tel Aviv. Now neither oligarch is likely to face extradition for the foreseeable future.
The suggestion that perhaps powerful oligarchs have profited from Politovskaya and Litivinenko's deaths has mostly been ignored or rejected by several commentators in the U.S., but has received more attention in Great Britain. John Podhoretz, blogging for National Review in response to a column by conservative commentator Pat Buchanan ("Was Putin Set Up?"), dismissed the Kremlin's accusations against Berezovsky and his London-based organization as anti-Semitic.
Chechen separatist spokesman Ahkmed Zakayev
In his 2000 book Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia, the late Forbes magazine journalist Paul Klebnikov accused the oligarch of ordering several contract killings against his business rivals. Klebnikov also charged Berezovsky of having links to the Chechen mafia and secretly negotiating with separatists in the breakaway Russian province behind President Yeltsin's back during the 1994-95 war. Since arriving in London in 2000, Berezovsky has worked closely with Ahkmed Zakayev, the chief spokesman for the Chechen rebels, who also enjoys political asylum in Great Britain. Russian prosecutors have accused Zakayev of raising money for the late Shamil Basayev, the terrorist who bragged about planning the attack on the children of Beslan.
Suspects in the murder of Paul Klebnikov
Klebnikov was shot dead in Moscow on July 9, 2005. The Russian Supreme Court has ordered a new trial of several Chechen suspects in connection with the case, after their acquittal last year on related charges. Like Litvinenko, there were multiple parties that could have profited from his death, including the Iranian government whose overseas assets Klebnikov had started to expose with his piece, "Millionaire Mullahs". But unlike Litvinenko, Klebnikov's death was not played out before the eyes of the world media, complete with a defiant last will and testament issued by Berezovsky's spokesman.