While the world debates Putin's role in ex-FSB spy's death, here's the lowdown on Alexander Litvinenko - Firstpost
Firstpost
You are here:

While the world debates Putin's role in ex-FSB spy's death, here's the lowdown on Alexander Litvinenko


A British judge has published a report on the 2006 death of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, saying President Vladimir Putin probably approved a plan by the Russian security service to kill him with poison.

But who was Litvinenko?

The former Federal Security Service (FSB) official was born on 4 December, 1962 in the Russian city of Voronezh. After completing his schooling in 1980, he opted to attend military college as he was unable to secure a seat at university. It was through his time at the South Ossetia-based military college that Litvinenko made his foray into the world of intelligence: His five-year stint was followed by a job in the interior ministry, that involved intelligence work.

After three years with the ministry, he was recruited in 1988 by the Committee for State Security (better known as the KGB, which was the predecessor to the FSB). After training for three years at a facility in Siberia, he was transferred to the KGB headquarters in Moscow in 1991.

After working with economic security until 1994, Litvinenko was re-assigned. This time, to the anti-terrorism department of the erstwhile Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK). "If you remember, 1994, it was the year when (the) Chechen war started and (the) involvement of FSB in this war (was) in a different way, it was a very high involvement. (Litvinenko) spent a lot of time in Caucasus , he knew (the) mentality of people, he had a lot of connection(s), and after that, he received a lot of business trip(s), not to (the) place of the war, but areas around, and he did this communication to have information from what happened inside of this war," said his wife Marina Litvinenko.

A painting of Alexander Litvinenko. AFP

A painting of Alexander Litvinenko. AFP

It's worth pointing out that Litvinenko had lived in the Caucasus during his formative years, which presumably provided him plenty of insight into the region and its prevalent issues.

But it was during his time investigating economic security that Litvinenko stumbled upon a terrifying secret: The Tambov criminal group was smuggling heroin from Afghanistan to Western Europe, using St Petersburg as a conduit. Worse yet, he was certain of 'widespread collusion' (see report below) between the Tambov group and KGB officials — including Vladimir Putin. He continued with his work, while keeping his eyes open to developments on the drug-smuggling issue.

In 1997, Litvinenko was transferred to the Department for the Investigation and Prevention of Organised Crime (URPO) — a secret organisation, and one that by Litvinenko's own admission in 2006, dealt with "killing political and high business men person without verdict". Among his assignments were the abduction of wealthy Chechen businessman Umar Dzhabrailov, and the assassinations of former FSB officer Mikhail Trepashkin and Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

These were orders Litvinenko was not willing to follow — particularly the Berezovsky directive — and so, he turned whistleblower. Finally, in the early hours of 20 April, 1998, Berezovsky's dacha was the venue for Litvinenko and his colleagues to go on record — on video with ORT journalist Sergei Dorenko — and outline their grievances against the Russian security establishment. The video would finally be aired only in November that year.

But by then, there had been too much water under the bridge.

What happened next?

In his book The Gang from the Lubyanka, Litvinenko explained, "TV is no place for an intelligence officer, but what we did I consider a self-defence. There was no other way"

Soon after the interview had been conducted, Litvinenko and his colleagues were suspended from the FSB. In addition, Putin had been appointed by then president Boris Yeltsin as head of the FSB.

In his book, Litvinenko would go on to relate the events that led up to his only ever meeting with the man who would soon become President of Russia.

"Go to Putin and tell him everything you know. I trust this man. I think he will understand, he is a smart man," Berezovsky is quoted as telling the author of the book.

And when Litvinenko finally met Putin, he described the meeting as follows:

He came out from behind the desk and to greet me. Apparently he wanted to show an open, likeable personalty. We, operatives, have a special style of behaviour. We do not bow to each other, do without pleasantries — and so everything is clear. Just look into each other’s eyes, and it becomes clear, do you trust the person or not. And I immediately had the impression that he is not sincere. He looked not like an FSB director, but a person who played the director... Putin agreed with everything (I said). Promised to call, but did not.

It is not entirely surprising that Putin never called, because after the airing of the interview in November, Litvinenko and his colleagues were dismissed from the FSB. The following year (1999) brought with it a string of ignominous arrests and detentions on dubious charges, backed up by false testimonies.

Eventually, Litvinenko left Russia in 2000 after a warning from Russian American historian Yuri Felshtinsky — who was at the time working on Berezovsky's biography — that "there (was) no way they (were) going to leave him alone and that he should think about emigration from Russia".

What followed was a whirlwind journey — aided and financed by Berezovsky — to Tbilisi in Georgia, Malaga in Spain and Ankara in Turkey. This journey finally culminated in an Istanbul-Tbilisi-London flight, also financed by Berezovsky. The oligarch, reportedly, spent around $130,000 on the Litvinenkos' expenses including "tickets, business class, the lawyer, lawyer's fees and so on".

Upon his arrival at London's Heathrow airport, Litvinenko is believed to have approached the first police officer in the transfer zone and said: "I am KGB officer and I'm asking for political asylum".

What happened after he arrived in Britain?

Here's a brief timeline:

2002: Litvinenko co-writes a book in which he accuses his former FSB superiors of carrying out a number of Russian apartment block bombings in 1999, which were blamed on Chechen militants.

1 November, 2006: Litvinenko falls violently ill after drinking tea with two Russian men, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, at the Millenium Hotel in London.


20 November, 2006: The Kremlin dismisses allegations that Russia's government poisoned Litvinenko as "sheer nonsense."

23 November, 2006: Litvinenko dies at 43 after a heart attack in London's University College Hospital. A day later Litvinenko's family releases a statement accusing Putin of involvement in his death. His death is blamed on poisoning from radioactive polonium-210.

2007: British prosecutors charge Lugovoi, an ex-FSB agent, with murder, but Moscow refuses to extradite him. As a result of the tussle, Britain and Russia both expel embassy staff and diplomatic relations drop to a low.

2013: An inquest into Litvinenko's killing — the usual method of examining an unexplained death — is stalled after it was barred from considering secret evidence about the possible role of the Russian state.

July 2014: Britain announces that in place of an inquest, Judge Robert Owen will instead chair a public inquiry into Litvinenko's death.

January 2015: The inquiry opens. Owen holds 34 days of public hearings and also looks at secret intelligence evidence behind closed doors.

21 January, 2016: The inquiry report is published. Judge Owen says there was a "strong probability" that the FSB directed the killing of Litvinenko and that the operation was "probably approved" by Putin.

What did the report say?

— Owen cited abundant evidence that Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun placed radioactive polonium-210 in Litvinenko's tea at a London hotel on 1 November, 2006. He died on 23 November.

— Owen concluded there is a "strong probability" the poisoning came under the direction of Russia's FSB spy agency, and that the operation was probably approved by then-FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev and by Putin.

— Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the inquiry as a "quasi-investigation" that would "further poison the atmosphere of our bilateral relations" with Britain.

— British Prime Minister David Cameron said the evidence in the report of a state-sponsored killing is "absolutely appalling," and Britain summoned the Russian ambassador for a dressing-down and imposed an asset freeze on Lugovoi and Kovtun.

— Interpol has issued notices calling for their arrest, although Russia refuses to extradite them. UK-Russian relations have been chilly, but the report comes as the countries are cautiously trying to work together against the Islamic State group in Syria, and neither wants a major new rift.

You can read the full report below:

Litvinenko Inquiry Report January 2016

With inputs from AP

First Published On : Jan 22, 2016 13:36 IST

Comment using Disqus

Show Comments