The apparent murder of former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Alexander Litvinenko in London has caused an uproar in Britain and the West, but is not much of a top story in Russia. Litvinenko fell ill November 1 and died in a London hospital on November 23. British authorities believe he had been poisoned by radioactive Polonium-210. Prior to his death, Russian national TV channels did not report anything about the Litvinenko case, and this apparent news blackout was lifted only after his death (NPR, November 24). In the West most of the media has accused the Kremlin of involvement in the crime, while in Russia, after the news blackout ended, the blame has been put on exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In 1999 Berezovsky, the most powerful of the so-called oligarchs at the time, orchestrated Putin’s ascendance to the Kremlin. (Putin was an unknown bureaucrat before Berezovsky began to spin him into Russia’s supreme leader.) In 2000 Putin and Berezovsky parted ways and now genuinely hate and fear each other. Litvinenko has been Berezovsky’s long-time associate, as well as a fierce critic of Putin in his own right. In his deathbed statement, Litvinenko accused Putin of ordering his death. However, the official government Rossiiskaya gazeta newspaper reports that Berezovsky could have organized Litvinenko’s poisoning “to discredit the Russian authorities.”
The latest story about the Berezovsky menace was published yesterday, November 28, in Moscow in the business RBK Daily. The paper quotes a military nuclear expert, Maxim Shingarkin, as saying that Litvinenko was accidentally poisoned by Polonium-210 while secretly making a radioactive “dirty” bomb in a secluded facility somewhere in London. Shingarkin implies that the bomb could have been used in a terrorist attack by Chechen separatists against Russia or deployed in the London metro system.
The obvious absurdity of the anti-Berezovsky campaign does not at all dissuade the Russian media, which in most cases today is no more than a Kremlin-controlled propaganda machine. Polonium is not an obvious choice for terrorists, since its very rare. Microscopic traces of metal Polonium-210, covered by gold film for safety, may be obtained in the United States to remove static electricity from photographic film and industrial machinery (San Francisco Chronicle, November 28). However, the amounts are too minuscule to be a deadly hazard. In addition, Polonium-210 decays rapidly (its half-life is 138 days) and cannot be accumulated or stockpiled.
Polonium-210 is a natural part of the fallout from a nuclear bomb explosion, and the Russian and U.S. military have explored its effects on humans and other living organisms. Other nuclear powers may have also researched Polonium poisoning, but most of the data has been kept secret. Berezovsky or any other group would have to face insurmountable problems to obtain usable amounts of fresh Polonium-210 and could not have been sure about what dose to use, or how to administer it effectively. It is hard to imagine any group of criminals or terrorists using Polonium to kill someone without substantial support from state agencies.
Polonium-210 is not easy to detect within a victim’s body, especially if there is no clue what to seek. There have been no other documented cases of Polonium being used to poison, and there is no forensic record of specific symptoms. It took the British over 20 days to figure what was wrong with Litvinenko. It was possible that, in the end, Litvinenko could have been listed as a victim of an unknown disease.
The Russian secret services seem to have had a motive to poison Litvinenko — to seek revenge on a defector — had the opportunity and reasonable hopes to avoid detection. If indeed Litvinenko’s death originated from Russia, who gave the order? There have been many theories (see EDM, November 27). Most imply that Putin did not give a direct order because it would tarnish his image in the West. Instead, infighting Kremlin factions are accused of sponsoring Litvinenko’s death to persuade Putin to stay on as president for a third term after 2008, or the crime is attributed to some renegade structures inside the special services.
There are indeed brawling fractions in the Kremlin and unscrupulous renegade groups within the special services. There have been numerous mysterious murders that can be attributed to such rogue fractions (Christian Science Monitor, November 27). However, the sophisticated nature of the Litvinenko case seems not to fully fit these scenarios.
While Litvinenko was a FSB defector, the FSB does not have an extended network of agents abroad to orchestrate the poisoning of a former agent who is already on alert for a possible retaliatory assault. The FSB would need help from the military intelligence (GRU) and the foreign intelligence service (SVR). Freshly produced Polonium-210 would need to be obtained from the Rosatom nuclear agency, and it is a tightly controlled substance. The poisons department must have provided instructions and special equipment to smuggle in and position the Polonium. Up to ten different departments and ministries would need to work in close cohesion to perform the operation.
The constant rivalry among departments, and the Russian system of Kremlin control whereby everyone reports on everyone, virtually excludes the possibility that Putin was indeed uninformed. The Kremlin-imposed news blackout of the Litvinenko poisoning indicates a coherent policy, not a faction-lead affair.
Putin is well known in Moscow to never forgive or forget anyone who, like Litvinenko, defamed him personally. Dictators often commit senseless crimes if they believe they can get away with them, like Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. Today in Moscow all of the ruling elite is convinced that the West so badly needs Russia’s gas and cooperation on Iran and North Korea in the UN that the Kremlin can do more or less anything. As they say in Russian, “We can spit on them and they will swallow.” So far, the West has done nothing to dissuade this Kremlin opinion.