Exclusive: The Death of Litvinenko – Two Years Later and What Have We Learned?

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE December 9, 2008


In virtually all things Russian, nothing is ever exactly as it appears and yet everything is exactly as it appears. For example, Vladimir Putin supplies Iran with nuclear energy capability, yet warns them about developing nuclear weapons. If this sounds a lot like the Mad Hatter giving philosophy lessons to Alice in Wonderland, you are absolutely correct! To grasp the extent of Russia’s (Putin’s) tentacles and the implication to our national, economic and global security, consider the cautionary tale of the Alexander Litvinenko saga and the theories that have emerged since his assassination.
Oh heck, let me cut to the chase – Putin is more deadly than Stalin, more strategic than Reagan, and more charismatic than JFK (at least to Russians, Europeans and a few South American dictators). There, I’ve said it. Add it all up and you have a global mastermind that even the Broccoli family couldn’t have dreamt up as the ultimate foil for 007 (Daniel Craig notwithstanding).
 “We are not wholly bad or good who live our lives under Milk Wood. And Thou I know would be the first to see our best and not our worst.” – Dylan Thomas
To do a little literary borrowing stylistically from the opening staves description of Jacob Marley’s death in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Alexander Litvinenko was dead. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by physicians, coroner and witnessed by law enforcement, intelligence agents, friends, family and others. Young Litvinenko was as dead as a door nail.
But Litvinenko died from a poison not even conceived of during the Victorian era – Polonium 210 (Po210) – a highly controlled, expensive and deadly radioactive toxicant. And regardless of the plots and subplots attendant to his death, one thing is for certain – he died too young and not of his own volition.
Death does not a saint make, martyrdom or righteous cause notwithstanding. But it does make us think – why would someone murder him? By all accounts he was a good father, husband and loved his native Russia. That he left because threats to his life resulted from his unmasking government corruption that he thought was hurting his country should have been the end of the story upon his entry into the protection of Great Britain. So what did he do that was so terrible as to warrant death? And was he in fact murdered? Why has the death of Litvinenko two years ago continue to captivate the imagination, raise questions, result in books, articles even a documentary about his life, times and passing? And if his message didn’t resonate, and his death was the result of an “accident” or “attempt at martyrdom to smear Putin,” as Russia has asserted, why is it that over the last few years, people from Moscow to Maryland who have been involved with Litvinenko or his case, are dead –  including a U.S. citizen?
The death of Litvinenko has reminded us that anyone anywhere can be targeted and killed.
Where there is smoke, there is fire.
When people die mysteriously, why is it Russian and Bulgarian intelligence or security agencies are the first folks we think of as the culprits? The intrigue behind Litvinenko’s suspicious death is reminiscent of the 1978 Le Carre-style assassination in London of Georgi Markov. Markov was a dissident, and highly vocal and critical of Russian and Bulgarian totalitarianism. He was stabbed with an umbrella designed to embed a pellet containing the deadly toxin Ricin. Although Russia, Soviet apologists and spin doctors maintain they had nothing to do with the Ricin assassination, evidence points to the special technology branch of KGB who designed the umbrella weapon. It is also well known that the KGB had (has?) a highly advanced, priority division that focuses on exotic poisons and advanced delivery systems. One doubts they are contracting out as the replacement for “Q” or acting as weaponry experts to the movie industry.
One can also recall the suspicious facial disfigurement and poisoning of Ukrainian president Vicktor Yushchenko. Once again Russia and its surrogates such as U.S. apologists continue to denounce any Russian involvement. Moreover, some even go so far as to say the Ukrainian had a rare skin disease. So that’s what we’re calling exposure to deadly chemicals these days. I’ll remember to send a memo to our poison control center first chance I get.
Murder by Polonium – an overview of the Litvinenko affair
Alexander Litvinenko (August 30, 1962 – November 23, 2006)
Every great story has three things in common – a villain, a hero and a victim. In a saga that could have come straight out of a Dostoyevsky novel, our story’s hero is a daring, athletic former Russian security agent who was one of the lead agents in the government corruption division of the FSB (successor agency to the KGB). That’s the simple part. Here’s where it gets “Russian,” i.e., convoluted.
In the 1980s, Litvinenko served in the Russian military, and then moved to the KGB. In 1988 he was transferred to the KGB Military Counter Intelligence directorate. By 1991 he specialized in organized crime and worked with Moscow criminal investigations and counterterrorism.
It is interesting to note that Litvinenko allegedly trained and planted FSB agents in Chechnya during the First Chechen War. In keeping with the Russian mindset, he was assigned to infiltrate Chechnyan Muslim groups to try and undermine their influence, and at the same time protect the FSB agents who were embedded among Chechens who organized the Moscow Theater siege. Virtually everyone involved in investigating that case are dead. Starting to see a pattern here? During this time, Litvinenko claimed to be privy to missions conducted by, connected with or receiving the support of the FSB. He suggests Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Carlos the Jackal, even Ayman al-Zawahiri (Number Two in al Qaeda) were on the Russian payroll. Apparently Zawahiri was trained by FSB for six months and Litvinenko was supposed to keep him under wraps and away from other government agencies.
In 1997, Litvinenko was promoted. His duties included the protection of several high profile folks including the grand oligarch, billionaire Boris Berezovsky. At the time, Berezovsky was a high ranking member of the Security Council – with close ties to Boris Yeltsin. Sometime later, Berezovsky introduced Litvinenko to Vladimir Putin, then one of the top officials at the FSB. 
Later, Litvinenko and his team discovered widespread corruption linking the FSB, Russian mafia and government leaders. Soon thereafter Litvinenko was allegedly ordered to kill Boris Berezovsky. Some suggest the order came from Putin, either directly or with his blessing. Litvinenko and his team appeared before the media to denounce the corruption of their agency and the government. Litvinenko is purported to have warned Berezovsky. As one can imagine, these acts did not endear him to Putin or his KGB colleagues, who likely did not share Litvinenko’s outrage on corruption. Though credited with the IRA, it likely is true of the KBG – once in, never out. Nevertheless, Putin is said to have fired Litvinenko. Though he was arrested several times, his charges were ultimately dropped. But he could see the handwriting on the wall and decided to leave Russia in 2000 with his wife and son, probably with the help of old security colleagues, including Alexander Goldfarb and Boris Berezovsky.
Litvinenko supposedly approached the United States for asylum before asking Great Britain. However once it was learned that Putin and Russia was miffed at Litvinenko, the U.S. passed. One wonders if the geniuses who made the decision remain as the bathtub ring of our pre-9/11 preparedness community. No doubt they are still pondering the invasion of Georgia from the summer.
So Litvinenko flees to Great Britain for political asylum which is granted in May 2001. He becomes a writer and authors two books highly critical of his former KGB/FSB boss and, subsequently Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Just prior to his death he became a naturalized citizen in October 2006. So much for the Pax Romana – his new citizenship clearly offered little protection. 
In one of his books, Litvinenko accused Vladimir Putin of gaining power as the leader who controlled terrorism and clamped down hard on Muslim extremists and Chechnyan rebels – when in fact, Putin was behind the events. Litvinenko asserted Putin created deadly scenarios – terrorist events that could be blamed on Chechnyan separatists just so that he could come across as the protector of Russian domestic security. Of note, Litvinenko converted to Islam shortly before the exposure to Polonium.
During his time in the UK, Litvinenko made several allegations against Russia; mostly Putin – never a good idea if one wants to live a long life – even with the protections of Berezovsky, who was bankrolling many of Litvinenko’s activities. Again here is where the plot thickens; Boris supposedly cut off funding to Litvinenko. Given the amount of money he was expending was negligible to a billionaire, one has to wonder why.
Litvinenko also asserted Putin was behind the deaths of political rivals, corporate adversaries and numerous Russian journalists.
According to the Impunity Index, a list of countries compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, where governments have consistently failed to solve journalists' murders, Russia is the number nine most dangerous place to be a reporter (out of nearly 200 nations) in the world. This nation is supposedly a developed global leader? Business, official corruption, and human rights abuses are among Russia's most dangerous beats for reporters. The American editor Paul Klebnikov was gunned down on a Moscow street in 2004. Fourteen journalists have been murdered with impunity since 1998, 49 since 1992. Well-known investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, a friend of Alexander Litvinenko who was reportedly working with him on corruption investigations, was shot in her apartment building in 2006. It has been reported Irina Hakamada, a former presidential candidate, warned Politkovskaya, stating Putin was behind the threats. Hakamada has subsequently denied making more than a general warning.
In a matter of public record, Putin used his influence at Gazprom to make certain many of the media outlets – television and print in particular – were purchased, their message unified (Russia speak for pro Putin). So much for Putin the reformer that “W” and Condi embraced.
In early November 2006, Litvinenko met with two Russians, presumably to discuss business. Both men were Russian businessmen; one remains a high profile member of Russian security and a party leader to date. Soon after their meeting, Litvinenko complained of serious abdominal pains, and experienced severe bouts of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Without going into a primer on the medical aspects of nuclear terrorism, a short time window from exposure to symptoms is a bad sign. While Litvinenko was trying to find medical care that could solve his problem, the two Russians he met with exited rapidly back to Russia. It is rumored they were treated for Polonium-related illness.
On November 23rd in London, just a short time after gaining British citizenship, Alexander Litvinenko succumbed to three weeks of suffering from the ravages of acute radiation syndrome. Polonium 210, when ingested, starts to destroy the gastrointestinal tract. His illness would be an excruciating process of vomiting, abdominal pain, an inability to eat, disruption of his immune system, hair loss and decaying from the inside. A few days before he died, he accused Putin of being his murderer.
Funny how the Moscow doctors knew what they were dealing with.
In the immediate aftermath of Litvinenko’s death, the British Government tried to follow the polonium trail and found traces on British Airways, in restaurants and lounges. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt, although numerous people were exposed to low dose amounts. Polonium 210 is most dangerous when inhaled, ingested or inserted into the body. In fact, skin is a decent short-term barrier.
The poison is real. His death is real. The circumstances are as shadowy and convoluted as the trail of radioactive materials left behind.
9 11 – is there a Russian connection?
Litvinenko also claimed that he was ordered to take into custody of the FSB and protect Al-Zawahiri from being discovered by Russian police, in order to train him with advanced terrorist strategy and communications methods. Recall that Zawahiri is the number two man in al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden and credited as the mastermind behind the 9/ 11 attacks. Given the dramatic contrast in tactics between the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 – when a handful of folks loaded up a truck full of explosives and other compounds and blew up part of the garage and 2001, where multiple highly trained teams were deployed, executed an almost flawless coordinated strategic attack on the United States, by hijacking four aircraft converting them into cruise missiles, and destroying the WTC, severely damaging the Pentagon – it seems reasonable that there was some after school tutoring among the terrorists that upgraded their thought process from insurgent tactics to tactical warfare. Could that be the handiwork of the KGB? Not a big stretch. Does anyone doubt the skills of trained planners (think FSB, KGB) were involved in 2001? Clearly this wasn’t reminiscent of the McVeigh 1995 or WTC 1993 mindset. Anyone have a hard time believing Putin could be behind some of the terrorism activities that help to undermine the U.S.? Just a theory?
Putin’s Russia
 “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
Dangerous as Stalin, instinctive like Reagan, charismatic as JFK – this is an adversary worth taking seriously!
The U.S. ought to be very careful about “high fiving” after winning. Our humiliation of the former Soviet Union has spawned nationalism reminiscent of post-World War I Germany. And then one day we wake up and find a new country, with a secretly rebuilt military, led by a charismatic leader. “Mission Accomplished” and “the U.S. destroyed the evil empire” perhaps should have been accompanied by one of two strategies – the Japan approach of MacArthur, or the Europe approach of Marshall/Truman. We screwed up the post- Cold War reconstruction of Russia, like we did with Afghanistan, Iraq in 1991 (think Kurds savagely murdered).
Preferring solutions to the blame game, let’s fast-forward to today. While U.S. leadership is vastly in need of a map, Putin has been studying his intently. he world according to Putin is as follows – consolidate power at home, create/capture allies abroad using money, might or both, stymie competitors, kill adversaries. Pretty straightforward. When will we learn?
Putin is no fool. He will negotiate when violence isn’t the most expeditious or long-lasting value proposition. We don’t have to just match him muscle for muscle. But to get the financial clout to deal with him as a viable challenger requires putting our own house in order. Better trade policies, even, dare I say, some protectionist clauses (could Teddy Roosevelt be the right philosopher for this century, too?).
A quick update from an earlier article, “The Global Chess Game” in FSM, Russia is increasingly aiding Iran with nuclear technology, weapons, and commercial partnerships (energy especially). His influence in Armenia and the “Stan” nations is growing. The same is true with Venezuela. Then the missile threats in Eastern Europe and Navy exercises throughout the world.
The Russian Navy isn’t exactly “McHale’s Navy.” How on earth could a bunch of pirates hijack a boat full of Russian tanks and weapons without the vaunted FSB not knowing about it? For that matter, we have satellites that can read the newspaper on your deck while you are reading it! So why can’t we catch these guys? Meanwhile, Putin laments over suitcase nukes he can’t find…perhaps he is providing “off the truck” (or off the ship) specials to rogues accompanied by a hefty dose of ‘plausible deniability?’ Da?
As part of his formula for retaining power in Russia, Putin “accepted” the leadership of the country's dominant political party, a position he will hold in addition to being prime minister. "I accept the invitation of the party. I am ready to take on myself the additional responsibility and head the party," Mr. Putin told delegates to the convention of the pro-Kremlin United Russia (UR) party, which controls 70% of the parliament's 450 seats. Was the party invitation with or without a gun being held to their collective heads? Maybe they were mailed photos of the last group of Putin rivals or at least images of their tombstones or obituary notices? Is Putin a synonym for Stalin? 
“This becomes a completely new and very dangerous situation for Russia," says Alexander Dugin, head of the nationalist Eurasia Movement. "We have two strong politicians, but all of the legitimacy lies with Putin. He has real charisma, huge popular support, his record of substantial achievements as president, and now the leadership of the main political party in the country. He will not be just another prime minister." He continues that the new president, Medvedev, is entirely beholden to Putin's sponsorship. But Russia's presidents enjoy supreme powers under the Constitution, written by former President Boris Yeltsin. Subsequently under Putin's leadership, the Kremlin greatly strengthened presidential powers by eliminating independently-elected regional governors, subordinating the media, sidelining civil society groups, and ushering in a pro-Kremlin parliamentary majority. Putin is smart!
In the aftermath of the Litvinenko death, the same question was asked…”who killed Alexander Litvinenko?”
Paul Joyal, an expert on Russia and security matters in an extensive set of interviews made it clear that he believed the murder was a message from the Kremlin to anyone who wants to speak out against the Russian leadership “if you do, no matter who you are, where you are, we will find you and we will silence you – in the most horrible way possible.” Not long after he was interviewed on MSNBC, Paul Joyal was shot at his home in Maryland. It remains unsolved. Will the blood trail continue? Should it? What does Putin, the FSB or Kremlin gain when throwing money, drugs and hookers around will likely have a longer lasting effect?
Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, has been threatened extensively and continues to receive extra security from the British Government. Boris Berezovsky reportedly continues to receive threats; whether true or for political propaganda remain to be seen. Never the less, Berezovsky’s efforts have been high profile and it is likely he is a target.
It is likely Litvinenko was murdered. Millions of dollars of Po210 didn’t just show up in London. So who bought it? Berezovsky, MI6, Putin or an FSB/KGB hit squad?
The likely suspects?
Berezovsky certainly had the money and probably the means to kill his old friend, martyr him and make it look like the old adversary Putin was at fault. The oligarch clearly would not be constrained by a moral dilemma as he is known as a dangerous adversary in his own right. He enjoys a strong international network of agents, allies and business associates. But he is not stupid; the blowback on his efforts to upstage and unseat Putin would be seriously compromised if in fact he was behind the murder and it was discovered. Nothing stays secret forever. Someday we may even learn who really was behind the JFK assassination!
Could it be British Intelligence behind this, by running Litvinenko as an agent to help ferret out nuclear smuggling? Though loath to resort to Cold War adages, the Brits have always been long on intelligence but short on secrecy. It is unlikely MI 5 or MI 6 could have kept this under wraps without FSB/KGB discovering it and publicly announcing it with more than a “he said, she said” newspaper propaganda battle.
Could Litvinenko just have gotten careless and mishandled the materials? Some assert this new Muslim convert was sympathetic to the Chechnyan cause and was trying to supply them with weapons. This was not likely for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which, why handle Polonium in London if you wanted to deploy it in Russia where it most likely originated? Beyond the unlikely scenario that Litvinenko was a Chechnyan sympathizer or agent, clearly a man with his military and security training would know how to handle dangerous materials, especially since this radioactive toxicant would only pose a serious threat if ingested and it is unlikely he would die to embarrass Putin. By all accounts he was a devoted father and husband. Why would he be handling Po 210 to begin with?
The obvious answer? The Putin run regime – with or without direct orders from the leader – was capable of conducting such an operation. In all probability they were behind it. Consider the following:
First – Russia is the leading producer of Polonium.
Second – Russian intelligence and security agencies have little respect for comparable Western services. In all likelihood, and this has been widely expressed, the perpetrators did not expect the British to make the correct diagnosis or identify this as a crime. And had Litvinenko died sooner, the perpetrators would have been correct. The diagnosis and testing were delayed and inadequate until very late in the game. The assassins thought they could get away with it and had the players in place to carry out and then escape from the action. Litvinenko was probably killed to be silenced.
But here is where the issue gets murky. Was he killed by an elite group of FSB/KGB agents who were punishing Litvinenko for betraying their code? Some in the intelligence community suggested this scenario. Or was it a Putin sanctioned hit?
Let’s be fair – Putin is many things – an effective dictator* who has helped rebuild Russian national pride, numerous corporations, geo-global clout and created more than a fair number of wealthy citizens. He is very popular among the citizenry albeit there is a vocal group of dissenters, who if they persist are facing a short life span. From a Russian perspective – the pride is back and Putin is the architect. The price is letting him run the show, become enormously rich, and letting him flex his muscles with stubborn ex-satellite nations. Regardless how we view him, his nation remains ok with him.
It could be a combination of angry agents with Putin’s blessing.
The U.S. probably isn’t behind the Litvinenko affair, even though we buy most if not all of Russia’s polonium just to ensure it doesn’t end up on the black market. What a world! It’s Russia’s polonium – can’t they keep it secure? Or are they so mercenary that they will sell anything to anyone for any reason as long as it doesn’t blow back on them? Do I really need to answer this?! Besides, Congress won’t even let the CIA work with hookers or people who don’t use cloth napkins! Can you imagine the apoplexy that would have been generated by a U.S. hit on a Russian émigré, especially one that we originally could have given asylum to?
Make no mistake – Russia is back; their leader is not the old oafish, shoe bashing bully of the original Cold War. He is sophisticated, has a plan and is executing it, at least to date, pretty well.
We run an enormous risk by underestimating Vladimir Putin. We also are foolish if we do not assign a value to virtually every geo-global activity he does. Whether it is conducting military “exercises” with South American nations, promoting commercial relationships in the Middle East, providing technical expertise or vacationing in Europe – nothing he does is wasted motion. Even his misdirections should be studied. His map should be our map. Just watch as he increases efforts in the Caribbean, South America and Mexico. Think Red Dawn – the sequel.
In anticipation of January 20th, we are in a precarious time of transition. Morale across security and intelligence agencies is variable. Concerns over mission creep, mission abandonment or weakening of our spying capacity permeate numerous agencies – press releases and official public statements to the contrary notwithstanding. Russia – through economic or government efforts continues to ramp up their cyber capacity, industrial espionage activities, export of weapons, links with Red Mafia worldwide, and infiltration of numerous seemingly innocent organizations across the globe.
Litvinenko’s death should not be in vain. Nor should those of courageous journalists, security professionals or innocent bystanders. Not as martyrs but as messengers.
Litvinenko asserted Putin may be behind much of the global terrorism, including al Qaeda and Palestinian Jihadists, is clearly willing to use any means to advance his agenda and must be watched closely. Freedom, human rights and democracy are not Putin priorities. Those who challenge Putin must be very cautious. Litvinenko may have underestimated his adversary and paid the ultimate price. We cannot afford to do likewise.
The UN is virtually useless in the global fight for freedom beyond fancy parties, impressive yet anemic “high commissions” and profligate corruption. Given most of the world doesn’t care, because if it did, the UN would be revamped or sold for condos …. when U.S. preeminence and influence are gone, who will defend freedom? We cannot afford to make the same mistakes of the past nor ignore the lessons of Litvinenko. The gauntlet has been thrown by Russia. How long will the U.S. be the sole remaining super power and last vestige of Plato’s city on the hill? It is up to all of us keep vigilant. The clock is ticking.
*By dictator I mean “duly elected official” in the Russian model…it doesn’t matter who votes, only who counts the votes!
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Dr. Robin McFee is a physician and medical toxicologist. An expert in WMD preparedness, she is a consultant to government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is a member of the Global Terrorism, Political Instability and International Crime Council of ASIS International. She has authored numerous articles on terrorism, health care and preparedness, and coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press.

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