A Very Expensive Poison

From Wall Street Journal

Liquidating Putin’s Opposition

Polonium 210 is 100 billion times as toxic as cyanide. Its use as a murder weapon was authorized at the highest levels of the Kremlin.

Daniel Johnson reviews “A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin’s War with the West” by Luke Harding.

Updated Feb. 26, 2017 10:47 a.m. ET

When Donald Trump was asked in an interview on Feb. 4 whether Vladimir Putin was “a killer,” the president did not deny it. The controversy that followed focused not on the casual admission that the Russian leader had indeed ordered assassinations, but on the implication that Mr. Trump’s own predecessors had done the same: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”

Yet there is a world of difference between the targeted killing of terrorists to which Mr. Trump was apparently referring and the liquidation of one’s political opponents and critics. More than a decade has elapsed since the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko by Russian assassins in a London hotel. Yet the horror it inspired as the victim died a slow and agonizing death in the full glare of publicity has not faded. Indeed, the passage of time has only magnified its significance.

The title of Luke Harding’s gripping account of Litvinenko’s assassination quite rightly highlights the murder weapon: polonium-210, an incredibly rare radioactive isotope almost certainly produced in the Avangard nuclear facility in Russia. It is immensely toxic: 100 billion times as lethal as cyanide. Because access to polonium is restricted, its use by the Russian security service to kill one of their former agents in a Western capital could, it is shown by Mr. Harding, only have been authorized at the highest levels of the Kremlin.
The implications of this are colossal. The judge who presided over the British public inquiry, Robert Owen, concluded that the assassination was “probably” approved personally by the Russian president. Mr. Owen did so in the light of vast quantities of evidence, much of it given in open court but some also, for reasons of national security or the protection of witnesses, in secret. The case against Mr. Putin, his intelligence agencies and their hitmen was built gradually over the years, by detective work and intelligence. As set out by Mr. Harding in this book, it arouses a demonic fascination.
He begins with the two suspected assassins: Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. They were cold-blooded but incompetent. Mr. Lugovoi, a former Kremlin bodyguard and KGB operative, emerges as a smooth-talking, lascivious psychopath, who thought nothing of risking the lives of his wife and children by bringing them with him as cover on his murderous mission to London. Mr. Kovtun, one of Mr. Lugovoi’s boyhood friends, is a ne’er do well and a blabbermouth. While posing as a waiter in Hamburg, this would-be desperado blurted out his secret to a friend (identified in court only as “D3” for his protection): “I have a very expensive poison. . . . Litvinenko is well protected in London. I intend to lure him out with an interview. And then to poison him.”

That is more or less what happened in November 2006. It required three visits to London before they succeeded in tempting Litvinenko to meet them in the bar of a Mayfair hotel and there to sip a cup of tea laced with polonium. The assassins fled back to Russia, leaving their victim to waste away in a hospital. Before his death, he helped his baffled doctors to identify the source of the alpha radiation that was killing him, but was undetectable by conventional Geiger counters. Nuclear scientists confirmed the diagnosis, and the story became a global sensation when a photograph of the dying man was published.
A far-reaching investigation followed, tracing the trail of lethal radioactivity left by Messrs. Lugovoi and Kovtun all the way back to Moscow. The Russians refused to co-operate, needless to say. Indeed, Mr. Putin rewarded Mr. Lugovoi, who today enjoys legal immunity as a deputy in the Duma, Russia’s puppet parliament, where he has been responsible for cracking down on press freedoms. Mr. Kovtun, by contrast, has disappeared into obscurity.

What had Litvinenko done to prompt the Russian president’s ire? As an officer in the Russian secret service, he had specialized in investigating organized crime and run seriously afoul of his bosses, whom he accused of running a “mafia state.” He fled to England via Turkey with his family in 2000, and while he had been working for MI6, treason alone would not have provoked Mr. Putin to take such a risk. Shortly before he was killed, Litvinenko had been granted British citizenship, making any temptation to brush his death under the carpet impossible for the U.K. Mr. Harding concludes that Litvinenko had detailed evidence of the involvement of the Russian state in organized crime right across Europe, with Mr. Putin as the biggest beneficiary. This made Litvinenko a potential star witness if corrupt Russian officials were ever brought to trial in a country where the rule of law still applied—such as the U.K.

Yet the British government reacted with embarrassment rather than outrage to the murder of a British citizen by a foreign power in the heart of London. Three prime ministers (Tony Blair,Gordon Brown and David Cameron) dragged their feet over making any adequate response. More than seven years passed before the then-Home Secretary—and now prime minister—Theresa May conceded that a public inquiry should take place with the power to hear secret intelligence and only after Litvinenko’s friends and widow had accused the British of colluding with the Kremlin in a cover-up.

Mr. Harding ranges widely, far beyond the Litvinenko case, in “A Very Expensive Poison.” He examines the background to other assassinations that may have been ordered by Mr. Putin, such as the shooting of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015 on a bridge within sight of the Kremlin. Nemtsov’s offense appears to have been to detect Mr. Putin’s fingerprints all over the covert operations that led to the annexation of Crimea and civil war in Ukraine. Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch who at first supported but later defied Mr. Putin, not least by supporting Litvinenko’s family, was found hanged in his English country house in 2013. The inquest returned an open verdict.

Reading “A Very Expensive Poison” is a sobering experience. Alexander Litvinenko’s gruesome death proved the point to which he had devoted his life: that the man who controls the Kremlin machine will stop at nothing to silence those who expose his machinations. Presidents who sup with Vladimir Putin should bring a very long spoon indeed.

Mr. Johnson is the editor of Standpoint, the London-based monthly magazine.


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