One of the most spectacular cloak-and-dagger hits of the post-Cold War era has blossomed into a full-blown diplomatic row after a British government inquiry concluded Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably” ordered the poisoning of a rogue spy in the heart of London nearly a decade ago.
Sir Robert Owen, the appointed coroner who led the “public inquiry,” said in his final 300-page report that Mr. Putin most likely ordered Moscow’s FSB intelligence service in 2006 to spike the green tea being drunk by defector Alexander Litvinenko with polonium-210, a rare, almost exclusively Russian-made nuclear isotope, because of personal “antagonism” between the two.
“Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me, I find that the FSB operation to kill Litvinenko was probably approved by [FSB Director Nikolai] Patrushev and also by President Putin. I am satisfied that in general terms, members of the Putin administration, including the president himself and the FSB, had motives for taking action against Litvinenko in late 2006,” he wrote.
He added that the use of polonium-210 was “at the very least a strong indicator of state involvement,” and that the radioactive poisoning of Mr. Litvinenko, which resulted in a slow, painful death, was probably chosen to “send a message.”
A lawyer for Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, told The Washington Times her client was “delighted” by the verdict, while British Prime Minister David Cameron called the findings “absolutely appalling” and would not rule out retaliating against Moscow. Interior Minister Theresa May told Parliament Thursday that the assassination was “a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and civilized behavior.”
But Mr. Putin’s government harshly criticized both the findings and the process by which Russian intelligence agents were supposedly implicated in the murder.
While saying the Russian government needs time to evaluate the report, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova expressed regret that “the strictly criminal case has been politicized and has darkened the general atmosphere of bilateral relations,” The Moscow Times reported.
“There was one goal from the beginning: slander Russia and slander its officials,” Ms. Zakharova said.
Mr. Putin did not comment on the inquiry case, but Andrei Lugovoi, one of the two FSB agents suspected of carrying out the 2006 hit and now a member of the Russian State Duma, called the accusations “absurd.”
“The inquiry findings that were made public today have once again shown London’s anti-Russia position, its closed-mindedness and the Brits’ unwillingness to determine the true cause of Litvinenko’s death,” Mr. Lugovoi told the Russian Interfax news service.
Elena Tsirlina, a London-based solicitor who has long represented Mrs. Litvinenko, expressed satisfaction that the inquiry had specifically singled out the role of Mr. Lugovoi and fellow FSB agent Dmitri Kovtun in the killing, and included the role of their FSB boss.
“Taking into account all the evidence available to him, the chairman also concluded that the murder was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev, then head of the FSB, and President Vladimir Putin. Mrs. Litvinenko is delighted by the report. It is now up to the British government to adjust its foreign policy toward Russia accordingly,” Ms. Tsirlina said.
Weighing a response
Mrs. Litvinenko read a statement of her own to reporters, saying she was “very pleased that the words my husband spoke on his deathbed when he accused Mr. Putin have been proved by an English court.”
Ms. May, who oversees the MI5 intelligence agency, announced “asset freezes” against Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun, and announced the British government was issuing a protest to Russia “in the strongest possible terms.”
“This morning I have written to my counterparts in [EU and NATO] drawing their attention to both the report and the need to take steps to prevent such a murder being committed on their streets,” she announced.
But Mr. Cameron acknowledged that British diplomatic interests — including the need for Moscow’s cooperation in Syrian peace talks that start next week — could limit the severity of the response.
“Do we at some level have to go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis?” the Conservative prime minister told reporters in London. “Yes, we do, but we do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart.”
Litvinenko died in London in 2006 at age 43, almost immediately after he met with the two former Russian agents for tea at London’s Mayfair Millennium hotel. Litvinenko, also a former FSB agent whose job it was to help Moscow combat organized crime, defected to the United Kingdom in 2000, where he became an outspoken critic of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party and a key intelligence asset for the British security services.
His 2006 book, “Blowing Up Russia,” accused Mr. Putin of orchestrating the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings that were officially blamed on Chechen rebels and used by the Russian president as the justification for the Second Chechen War.
Mr. Putin’s regime banned the book in Russia.
“Litvinenko was one of the first persons to raise this issue,” said David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent who investigated the 1999 bombings and has testified before Congress about them. “He was able to write about the FSB involvement in the bombings from the point of view of someone in the FSB, as someone who understood how they operated and what the technical requirements were — so he was obviously an important witness and someone they wanted to eliminate.”
Russian officials have insisted from the beginning that Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun are innocent, instead shifting blame to exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who was well acquainted with Litvinenko. Berezovsky, an early supporter of Mr. Putin, broke with him in 2000 and died in exile in 2013 under suspicious circumstances in his Berkshire home.
Judge Owen called the case for Russian state involvement circumstantial but strong, arguing that the bizarre method of killing, with radioactive poison, fit with the deaths of several other opponents of Mr. Putin and his government, and noted that the Kremlin had “supported and protected” Mr. Lugovoi since the killing, even awarding him a medal for service to the nation.
“I am sure that Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun placed the polonium-210 in the teapot at the Pine Bar on 1 November 2006,” he wrote.
While Mr. Cameron would not detail what other reprisals his government might take in the wake of the findings, Litvinenko’s widow pressed for a tough response.
“It’s unthinkable that the prime minister would do nothing in the face of the damning findings,” Marina Litvinenko told reporters.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.