The KGB murdered their former colleague Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 using Polonium-210 because he was an honest cop who crossed Putin. It’s that simple.
(For simplicity, in this article we’ll refer to all manifestations of the Russian security service as the KGB even though it went through many transformations up to the current FSB).
The Kremlin can complain about the manner in which the inquiry was conducted by Sir Robert Owen. It can point out, quite correctly, that some of the evidence was given to the inquiry in secret by MI5 and MI6 and it can claim that this discredits the report, but it would be wrong, because the public evidence on its own is enough to point the finger straight at Putin.
At the time of his murder, Alexander Litvinenko was a 43-year-old ex-KGB agent who had been living in London with his family for six years. An obviously honest and conscientious man, Litvinenko first became alarmed in 1991 when he learned that a crime gang, the Tambov group, was shipping Afghan heroin through Uzbekistan and St Petersburg to Western Europe. He was convinced that the Tambov group had close ties to public officials, including both Vladimir Putin, a recently-retired KGB man based in St Petersburg and Nikolai Patrushev, future head of the KGB.
Later, as an officer of the KGB’s Organised Crime Unit in Moscow, he became a close friend of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky by saving him from arrest and thereby, as Berezovsky saw it, saving his life. That debt would soon be repaid.
By the late 1990s, Litvinenko’s honesty had become an intolerable nuisance for the authorities, and especially for Vladimir Putin, with his refusal to kill Berezovsky perhaps being one of his his worst sins. But his biggest transgression was to go public, along with several fellow officers and reveal the catalogue of illegal instructions they had received, ranging from basic corruption to outright murder.
The Soviet Union might be gone, but a former KGB lieutenant-colonel was in charge of the country and that man had spent too long with “the organs” as he called them, to change now.
Litvinenko was a dead man, and he knew it.
After three arrests, three imprisonments and three trials in which the shoddy evidence collapsed, it was time to get out and so, with support from Berezovsky, Litvinenko and his family secretly fled Russia and set up home in England, successfully applying for political asylum and later for citizenship.
For the six years he had left to him, Litvinenko never stopped writing about the corruption of Putin’s Russia, which was either a deeply stupid strategy or a fatalistic Russian recognition that they were going to get him one way or the other. And they did, in the classic, bumbling style of all spooks.
We all have a James Bond image of Soviet-era spies that simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, as the case of Jerzy Popieluszko should remind us. The dissident priest, long a thorn in the side of the Polish secret police, was murdered in 1984 in circumstances that would be farcical if they weren’t so brutal. The secret police first tried to obtain an untraceable gun, but failed. Then they tried to fake a traffic accident by dropping a concrete block on Popielusko’s car from a motorway bridge, but that attempt also failed. Finally, they kidnapped him, beat him to death and dropped his body, weighted down with a stone, into a reservoir, where it was discovered only two weeks later.
The inept killers were caught, tried and jailed, sparking the popular upsurge that led to Solidarity’s victory in 1989, but at least that murder didn’t have the Prime Minster’s fingerprints all over it. General Jaruzelski was as free as the next man to denounce it.
Litvinenko’s murder, although almost equally inept, would be nowhere near as deniable, for a very simple reason. The killers poisoned Litvinenko with Polonium-210, an extremely rare radioactive metallic element, produced only in Russia, but that in itself wouldn’t matter very much if we didn’t know the amount of Polonium-210 produced every year.
It’s not measured in tonnes or even kilos. The entire output of Russian Polonium-210 for an entire year is 8 grammes. That’s a quarter of an ounce. An entire city, based around a huge reactor, strains and labours for a full year to turn out a quarter ounce of this material, and that’s the stuff Litvinenko’s assassins took with them to London, even though Russia usually exports its entire output to the USA.
Polonium-210 is about 200 times as radioactive as radium, emitting both gamma-radiation which makes the air around it glow blue, and alpha particles, which are Helium atoms without their electrons. These are the things that kill you. They won’t go through your skin, but if you swallow the stuff, the alpha particles destroy your soft inner organs. They kill the cores of your cells. One scientist described them as nuclear bullets.
To put it in context, a single gramme of Polonium-210 is enough to kill fifty million people and sicken another fifty million. Nuclear weapons aren’t always explosive.
Scientists use Polonium-210 in tiny amounts as a radioactive source in extremely accurate measuring instruments and it has also been used as a power source for small devices in space exploration where the radiation isn’t a major issue. It has a half-life of about six months and eventually it decays to lead. Its only other known use is for murdering spies, a task at which it is extremely effective.
This is where all the fingers begin to point not just at Moscow but at Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
The two clowns who administered the fatal dose to Litvinenko clearly had no idea what kind of substance they were dealing with, as later scans of their hotel rooms would show. One of them even poured the remainder of his stash down the sink in his room after getting Litvinenko to drink some tea contaminated with the stuff. But by a crude calculation, the two assassins had in their possession about €40 million worth of Polonium-210 and it’s a safe enough bet that they didn’t buy that out of their KGB expense account.
They had enough material in their possession to wipe out a good-sized country and they had it in central London.
Now, in a country like Russia, hardly a decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a country run by a former KGB officer, is it plausible that the man at the highest level didn’t know about this operation?
Is it believable that Putin could have been unaware of two operatives running around London with a substance that could in theory kill everyone in Britain?
Is it credible that they would have been there without his express approval?
Finally, why was it so important to kill Litvinenko?
There can only be one logical answer: he had information that threatened the survival of the one man who could approve sending this nuclear weapon to London.
In some ways, the Brits are showing great restraint in their response to the inquiry report. Many countries would have treated the Litvinenko murder as an act of war.