- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

When British prosecutors announced this week that they were ready to level charges in the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence colonel turned British citizen and Kremlin critic, the response from Russia was predictably obstructionist. The Russian government, citing constitutional authority, refused to extradite suspect Andrei Lugovoy, another former Russian intelligence agent who met with Mr. Litvinenko in London the day he was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210.

Several of Mr. Litvinenko’s close associates have put the blame for his death squarely on Vladimir Putin, as the murdered former intelligence officer is reported to have done. Included in this group is exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a billionaire who has made public his desire to see the Putin government out of power in Russia. Mr. Berezovsky went so far as to claim that charges against Mr. Lugovoy were effectively charges against Mr. Putin himself.

In the aftermath of Mr. Litvinenko’s death, nearly six months ago, Dmitri Simes, founding president of the Nixon Center, made the compelling point that to blame Mr. Putin for such a brazen killing required the assumption that “the leader of a major nuclear power is dangerously devoid of basic common sense and any instinct for self-preservation.” That Mr. Putin seems too shrewd does not dispel the possibility — indeed the likelihood — that officials at some level of the Russian government were involved in the murder.

The smoking gun in the Litvinenko case that seems to implicate the Russian government is polonium-210, a rare isotope produced (legally) almost exclusively in Russia and then only in small quantities, which is monitored by the Russian government.

British officials should continue to seek justice. Mr. Lugovoy called the charges “political” — and promised “sensational” revelations in the near future. By pushing ahead with reasonable charges, Britain is proving itself unswayed by the political undercurrents of the case. As Russian officials appear unlikely to change their minds about Mr. Lugovoy’s extradition, preferring instead their own investigation, British officials could try Mr. Lugovoy in absentia. They can also push for a thorough and genuine investigation and trial in Russia, but as we have seen from the host of unsolved murders of reporters and Kremlin critics, from Paul Klebnikov to Anna Politkovskaya, justice in Russia isn’t always genuine.

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