Russian businessman Dimitri Kovtun met with Litvinenko on November 1
German police announced this weekend that they have found traces of polonium 210 at a Hamburg apartment formerly occupied by Russian businessman Dimity Kovtun. Along with the ex-KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi, Kovtun was one of two Russian men Alexander Litvinenko met in London on November 1, the day before he fell violently ill from radiation poisoning.
Mr. Kotvun allegedly left a long trail of polonium 210 traces behind while traveling from Moscow to London via Hamburg. The ultimate source of the nuclear material remains unknown, but British media reports have cited anonymous sources claiming that the isotopes have been traced to a Russian reactor. However, as veteran investigator and blogger Edward Jay Epstein points out, the quantity of polonium 210 required to create a fatal dose is quite small, and could conceivably be smuggled out of a nuclear facility by a single bribed technician. Russian government spokesmen have strongly denied that any nuclear material has ever been lost or could possibly be stolen from their facilities. Last week Russian nuclear agency officials told RIA Novosti that Russia's only polonium producing reactor was shut down two years ago and that the whole country produces only eight grams a month from leftover stocks, primarily for customers in the U.S. and Great Britain. Once isolated from polonium, the half life of the 210 isotope is just 132 days.
Both Mr. Kotvun and Mr. Lugovoi have denied any involvement in the crime, and point to the fact that they are undergoing treatment for radiation poisoning to demonstrate their innocence. After several UK newspapers cited Scotland Yard complaints of delays in interviewing key witnesses, British detectives interviewed both men in the presence of Russian officials on Monday. Mr. Lugovoi told RIA Novosti that he is fully cooperating with the criminal investigation and is happy to be interviewed again if necessary. Meanwhile, this weekend the Russian Prosecutor General's office announced that it may send its own team of investigators to London.
For the benefit of Russia Blog readers, in today's extended post we have reproduced excerpts from New York University Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen's appearance on the Dec. 7 edition of The Charlie Rose Show. In the segment, Prof. Cohen is highly critical of how the Anglo-American media has covered the Litvinenko affair, and shares his own opinion on the likely geopolitical fallout from the case.
Prof. Cohen received his doctorate from Columbia University in 1969 and has taught Russian history for over thirty years. Prof. Cohen also happens to be married to Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation, a left-wing American magazine that has been highly critical of both Bush and Putin.
To watch the whole thing, click on the embedded Google video link in the extended post.
The Charlie Rose Show aired on PBS December 7, 2006
Excerpt of Stephen F. Cohen's remarks
Charlie Rose (11:00): Help me understand all of this sir.
I'm sort of an unlikely candidate...
Charlie Rose: Do you hear of any theories that you would dismiss because of your understanding of the players, or some that you would not believe because of your understanding of the players?
Stephen Cohen: The first thing I would say is, if this does not restore the study of Dostoyevsky to American universities, nothing else will...the second thing I want to say is: shame, shame, shame on the British and American media and press. From the moment this happened, they have violated every canon of objective journalism. Now they're trying to make amends now, the New York Times in particular. But they have accused Putin - they have basically reversed jurisprudence and said, "Putin is guilty until he proves himself innocent". They have printed this, they have literally said this, and this is a very bad lesson for us to teach the Russians, that we don't believe in our own presumption of innocence.
The second thing I would say is, as the media points its finger towards Putin and his associates, you need to ask the question that every murder detective asks: Who had motive?
Charlie Rose (12:06): Ok, but before you...
Stephen Cohen: But wait, I'm going to tell you the answer.
Charlie Rose: But let me just say that it's not the media that's pointing the finger, it is the deceased who pointed the finger, and the media reporting it.
Stephen Cohen (12:15): First of all, we do know...with all respect to Yuri [Felshtinsky], when Yuri produces the Russian document that Litvinenko wrote...all we know is a man dying told two other men, who are two other men, Yuri and a man named [Alex] Goldfarb, that Putin did it.
Charlie Rose: A spokesman for [Boris Berezovsky]...
Stephen Cohen: Now, bear in mind that Litvinenko had accused Putin of every imaginable offense against mankind; not only blowing up buildings, to come to power in Moscow, but of having sex with young boys. He's accused him of everything.
Charlie Rose: In fact he said he had pictures of him [Putin] too.
Stephen Cohen (12:55): Yeah, I think the most you can say for Mr. Litvinenko, is that he was a little indiscriminate in the accusations he made, to the point where people had ceased to take him seriously. He was a faded star.
Stephen Cohen (13:07): So now we come to motive. You always ask: Who had a motive, not only to kill this man, but as Ed [Jay Epstein] points out, to kill him in the way they did, not making him disappear, not killing him instantly, but a slow dramatic death for the media. The one person who had no motive was Putin - because it has been damaging to him beyond belief. (13:28) It has damaged him at home, and it has damaged him abroad. Therefore, therefore, leaving aside Ed's theory, it's only a theory, Ed doesn't insist on it...
Edward Jay Epstein: It's only a theory, a hypothesis...
Stephen Cohen: ...there are reports that Litvinenko was dealing in polonium, and poisoned himself...but, leaving that aside, then the reason for this having happened was an operation against Putin (13:55). It's clear to me. It was an operation run against Putin, probably with varying motives. One last point: if you study history, as Jack [Matlock] and I did, Jack and I can give you a list of what we used to call Cold War mysteries, things like this that have happened -- not quite so terrible, but on the very eve of a breakthrough in Russia's relations with the West. You can go back to the shoot down of the U-2; you can go down to the shoot down of the Korean airliner in 1983; you can go back to the -- you [Jack Matlock] were probably in Moscow for Reagan for the arrest of Nicholas Danilov...to this day we don't know who, but it was clearly an attempt to sabotage -- I think -- the relationship between Gorbachev and Reagan that was emerging.
There are people, powerful people, with vested interests, primarily in Russia but not only, who do not want a major rapprochement between Russia and the West. At the moment, the West doesn't mean the United States, but Europe, and that's why England was so important. (14:59) If you're looking for motive, there it is. And then you begin to discuss these consequences for international politics, for the future of Russia, for Putin's succession, that's where the discussion begins.
Charlie Rose: Tell me an individual that did not want to see rapprochement between Russia and Europe (15:17)...an individual.
Stephen Cohen: But Charlie, when you study Russian politics, you don't begin with individuals, you deal with factions. All of us know that there's a powerful faction in Russian politics that wants Russian foreign policy oriented towards China and away from the United States; it wants Russia to become the citadel of the anti-NATO forces in the world, a NATO that's moving in on Russia. If you had to pick the person, the people most associated with that, these names will mean nothing to anybody else -- and I don't want to defame them because it might not be entirely true -- it's the Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and the either Deputy or Senior Chief of Putin's Staff, a man by the name of [Igor] Sechin. Those are the names associated in Russia with this anti-Western orientation of foreign policy. Did they run this operation? I have no idea. But add just this one other thing: it is a fact, and I've heard these people talk about this, that there is an equally powerful group that under no circumstances wants to see Putin to leave office in 2008, as he is obliged to by the constitution, because they would be finished...
Charlie Rose (28:00): Last word to you Stephen, where does this go from here?
Stephen Cohen: The case, or the relationship?
Charlie Rose: The relationship. The case we know, we've gotten to hear from all...well, no, you tell me this.
Stephen Cohen (28:12): The poison that has killed Alexander Litvinenko has crept into international relations, that's clear. The event is poisoning relations, particularly Russia's relations with England, and that's spilling over into the relationship with the United States. I guess I think that this case will never be solved, in the sense of conclusive evidence of what happened, and therefore each person with a vested interest and a different interpretation will come away from this case with its own political conclusions.
Stephen Cohen: What worries me is that we're coming to a crucial moment in American-Russian relations. (28:46) In January, if Russia is to join the WTO, as Bush has now advocated, Congress has to remove this restriction on Russian trade with the United States that goes back to the Cold War -- Jackson Vanik. But it's going to become an occasion for bipartisan bashing of Russia.
In addition, the American Presidential campaign is now unfolding, and every leading contender has demanded that we toughen up our policy on Russia. This case can only propel that [trend] further, I think. Then we get back to an analysis of how we achieve for our national interests from Russia what we want, and that isn't the way. So this is bad -- bad for Putin, bad for the United States.
By the way, you notice, Bush hasn't said a peep accusing Putin, he's the only person in the entire world, I think, who has remained silent. Because he [Bush] needs Putin, he's his partner, he's his last claim to having a foreign policy legacy, and he doesn't want to see Putin go down in a welter of charges that he's a murderer.
(Hat tip: World Politics Watch)
UPDATE: Welcome, Pajamas Media readers!