Neil Barnett recalls his encounters with the poisoned spy who has had the bearing of a marked man for years. The Russian intelligence services, Litvinenko told him, are purely political organisations, whose only purpose is to shore up Putin’s power
The hotel off a main square in a central European capital was a seedy, low-budget place. When I asked the receptionist for Alexander Litvinenko in room 38, she looked at me blankly, then after some rooting around said, ‘We only have a Mr Jones in room 38.’ It was Litvinenko, of course, employing one of his endless ruses designed to throw off his former FSB (Federal Security Service) comrades who had hounded him since his defection (or ‘granting of asylum’) to the UK in 2000.
Sitting on his bed dressed in a shiny tracksuit and trainers, Litvinenko was a pale, watchful figure, a Putin-like grey man who could vanish into the crowd without difficulty. But at the same time he showed flashes of boyish charm distinctly unlike the Russian leader. He wanted to discuss the Russian state’s abuse of Interpol international criminal arrest warrants to blackmail businessmen and intimidate opponents living outside Russia. It was 2002 and Litvinenko’s patron, the dissident oligarch Boris Berezovsky, also living in London, faced extradition to Russia. The story was interesting, but hard to shift in the British press: too much ‘inside baseball’, too obscure.
But Litvinenko himself was a fascinating figure. I wanted to know what had driven him to confront his old masters so directly, and how he managed the fear that must bring. He described how he had discovered evidence of FSB involvement in the 1999 ‘apartment bombings’ in Moscow and Volgodonsk that had been a prime casus belli for the new Chechen war. Litvinenko — a lieutenant-colonel at the time he decamped — described how local militia in the city of Ryazan caught some men planting what seemed to be explosives in the basement of an apartment block in the early hours of the morning. The men identified themselves as FSB officers and claimed that the bags of explosives in reality contained sugar, and that they were conducting an ‘anti-terrorist’ exercise.
Litvinenko told AP, ‘I have direct proof that in Ryazan there was not sugar in the building, but hexogen; that the explosive device was not a dummy, but real; and that the explosive device was put there by FSB officers on instructions from their superiors.’ He then said of the successful explosions elsewhere, also using hexogen, ‘Those bombings were organised by the Russian special services.’ In other words, he alleged that the FSB were blowing up hundreds of Russians in their beds to create such panic that the population would clamour for authoritarian measures.
‘Are you ever threatened, do you ever feel in danger?’ I asked. Litvinenko stared disconsolately at his trainers as if this was a question he couldn’t begin to answer adequately. Then a roar of laughter came from the armchair across the room, in which sat his friend, the veteran dissident Vladimir Konstantinovich Bukovsky, a vast and jovial Russian bear wrapped in tweed, who could not be more different from Litvinenko. As a neurobiologist, he had exposed the Soviet use of mental institutions against dissidents, and spent 12 years in the Gulag as a result. In 1976 Moscow swapped Bukovsky for a Chilean communist leader, and he moved to Britain.
‘Let me tell you story,’ said Bukovsky (like many Russians, he has at best an on-off relationship with articles). ‘A few weeks ago Sasha [Litvinenko] came to lunch in Cambridge. After lunch we went for walk in park. Sasha’s mobile phone rang; it was old colleague from FSB. He said, “Sasha, you think you’re safe in London, and perhaps you are. But remember what happened to Trotsky!”’ Bukovsky found his story so amusing that he more or less detonated with mirth. Litvinenko remained unmoved, and studied his trainers more intently.
Of course, things have moved on since 1940, when Stalin’s agent Ramon Mercader drove an ice pick into Trotsky’s head in Mexico City: a dose of radioactive thallium is altogether more in keeping with modern, advanced Russia.
We met again the next year, this time in Piccadilly by the statue of Eros. His English had improved dramatically, and he seemed a little more at ease in London. He was bursting with information about complicated criminal conspiracies involving senior FSB officers and underworld figures from Chechnya and Georgia. He had worked in Urpo, the organised crime bureau of the FSB, but from what he told me it was clear that the bureau had misinterpreted its mission and, rather than combating organised crime, had been indulging in it. He said, ‘The Russian intelligence services are not like yours, they are not concerned principally with national security. They are secret political organisations whose first duty is power, and today that means Putin’s power.’
He drew complicated spider diagrams in his notebook to illustrate the mechanics of various illegal businesses, and he was still pushing the Interpol warrant story. But again nothing he said could be adequately checked and proved, nothing added up to a useable press story.
He did say, however, that Victor Kirov, a man from the Russian embassy in London claiming to be deputy consul, was harassing him by calling unannounced at his house at night. Litvinenko complained to the police who told the Russian embassy that as Litvinenko was a British citizen, they had no right to approach him. But if he started to feel more secure in central London, that was a mistake: it was probably in Piccadilly three weeks ago that he was poisoned.
In recent months Litvinenko’s campaign against the Putin regime has reached impressive, if at times slightly absurd, proportions. In July he wrote a piece entitled ‘The Kremlin Paedophile’ on a Chechen opposition website, alleging that the Russian president had sex with underage boys. When he was poisoned he was investigating the recent murder of his friend Anna Politkovskaya, Russia’s most prominent investigative journalist.
If Politkovskaya’s killing was a shameless and open political murder, the attempt on Litvinenko is even more so. A well-placed security source told The Spectator that a poison as rare and exotic as radioactive thallium ‘suggests a state actor, and one with a long-standing interest in assassination techniques’. Poisoning a British citizen on British soil demonstrates a new level of chutzpah even for the Putin regime (which, for the record, rejects any link to the attack as ‘sheer nonsense’).
Vladimir Bukovsky takes a different view. He told me earlier this week, ‘In July this year the Duma passed two very interesting laws. One allowed the security services to kill extremists abroad. The second broadened the definition of “extremist” to include those who libellously criticise the regime. The way they work is to pass a death sentence in absentia, then instruct the FSB or GRU [military intelligence] to carry it out. That said, when I saw Sasha a couple of weeks ago, he didn’t speak about surveillance or threats, but that’s because they had become a permanent feature of his life.’
Both crimes fall into an accelerating pattern of actions intended to silence all effective dissent and revelation. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 13 Russian journalists have died in contract killings unambiguously linked to their work since 2000. Naturally, CPJ will not be drawn on the potential involvement of the Kremlin, but the government’s reaction to the killings is telling, says Nina Ognianova, the group’s Russia co-ordinator: ‘What we can say is that the Russian authorities, in their failure to properly investigate and prosecute crimes against j ournalists, have fostered a climate of impunity, in which reporters are afraid to cover sensitive subjects and enemies of the press are encouraged to continue killing journalists. Unless authorities act to overturn this cycle of impunity, the roster of dead journalists will continue growing with terrible consequences for Russia’s press corps and the public.’
The mainstream media are now almost completely in the hands of Kremlin allies and state-run companies. Private property is under attack and foreign investors are increasingly nervous after the Yukos oil company nationalisation and the undermining of BP’s contract in Sakhalin. Georgia is under economic and rhetorical siege from Moscow, its citizens expelled from Russia, their businesses shut down on trivial pretexts. Young people are being encouraged to join the Putin youth movement Nashi (Ours). Fascism looms.
Apologists will say that under Yeltsin the country threatened to fall apart, and that Putin is a necessary corrective. They will go on to say that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the erstwhile owner of Yukos now imprisoned in a radioactive Siberian gulag, needed to be brought to heel. They will call Berezovsky a crook and cast doubt on Litvinenko’s motives. They will say that the Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili and the Ukrainian Moscow-baiter Yulia Tymoshenko simply head opportunistic clans seeking to exploit their countries.
Yet this is to miss the point. None of these people is unambiguously good or motivated only by the sweet light of reason; nor do they need to be. What they represent is a diversity of interests, voices and ideas that Putin and his sivoliki find intolerable. And that is why they find common cause with such unlikely allies as Anna Politkovskaya and Vladimir Bukovsky.
The meaning of these increasingly shameless actions is not entirely clear. On the one hand they seem to amount to an open declaration that Russia no longer cares what the world thinks and has abandoned for good the project of democracy and pluralism. Yet one Russia watcher, who preferred not to be named, said, ‘They just don’t think that way. Putin has ruled the country with increasing grip for six years, is isolated from criticism and probably just doesn’t realise how these actions are seen.’
Either way, nothing suggests that the intimidation of journalists, dissidents, neighbouring countries and energy customers is likely to abate. The more friction is generated with the West, the more the population will rally to Putin, who already enjoys vast popularity.
Litvinenko’s apartment bombing story suggests that focusing public fears on external bogeymen is nothing new for this government. As a former KGB officer, Putin’s instinct is to wrap his fingers around the most sensitive parts of the anatomy and squeeze and, seeing weakness, squeeze harder. Could a military move against Georgia be on the cards? Just as in the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, it is hard to see how Western powers busy in other wars would countenance a direct confrontation with Russia over such a trifling territory.
Churchill said in 1939, ‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ He was quite right, but his words no longer apply: those who consider Putin’s regime to be enigmatic or riddlesome simply refuse to accept the abundant evidence before them. We should have the sense to accept it and, in our diplomatic, energy and security calculations treat Putin’s Russia for what it is.
Neil Barnett’s Tito is published by Haus www.neil-barnett.com