Sunday, 14 February 2016

Watson: “A man steeped in the shady, sometimes disreputable world of intelligence. He used to work for the KGB at a high level…”

A somewhat lazy conflation of the (Soviet) KGB, in which the young Litvinenko did not hold any senior post, and its various successor agencies including the FSB. In passing, it may be mentioned that in August 1991, Vladimir Putin resigned definitively from the KGB in reaction to and on the second day of the abortive putsch against Gorbachev:

“As soon as the coup began, I immediately decided which side I was on.”[1]

Litvinenko though, having remained within the Soviet/Russian security apparatus throughout the early 90s, was promoted in 1997 to deputy head of a section (eight to ten officers) of the FSB Department for the Investigation and Prevention of Organised Crime. Also important to note however, was that in this role he moonlighted as head of security for – you guessed it – Boris Berezovsky. Officially this was illegal, but Russia’s cash-strapped public sector tended to turn a blind eye in those days. It was an excellent arrangement for Berezovsky, as well as for Litvinenko:

Russian TV journalist Andrey Kondrashov: “[Berezovsky] made all of his money by sticking to the one rule that he set for himself in the 90s – stay close to the authorities… I have no doubt that he fled the country because he feared prosecution[2] not political persecution, as he once said. Putin’s declared principle that oligarchs should be kept at a distance from the authorities disabled the mechanism that made it possible for him to make money, by maintaining close links with the government.”
From ‘The Life and Death of Boris Berezovsky’, Russia Today documentary, first broadcast April 2013.

Litvinenko is understood originally to have fallen out with his FSB superiors over his exposure of what he alleged was a serious intention to assassinate Boris Berezovsky. For the purposes of the Inquiry, Marina Litvinenko testified that this amounted to…

“an unequivocal instruction to commit an act of murder by his superior” (3.46),

…though Owen makes clear that she had to be, as it were, ‘persuaded’ that this was in reality her recollection.

“…but was granted asylum in Britain in 2000.”

Boris Berezovsky financed the arrangements for Litvinenko and his family to flee Russia and reach London; Alexander Goldfarb attended to the details. This being an offence under British law, Goldfarb (a US citizen) was subsequently banned from visiting Britain for one year.[3]

Marina L: “He was very loyal to this country [i.e. Britain], and he was very happy to be here.”

Watson: “Six years later, on 1st November, just after he’d become a British citizen…”

Litvinenko was granted full British citizenship on 13 October 2006. As noted by Sir Robert Owen, this appears to have instilled in him a false sense that his personal security situation was improved.

“…he met two former colleagues from Russia’s intelligence world in the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel.”

To reiterate: Owen’s report makes clear that Kovtun was never in fact part of ‘Russia’s intelligence world’, but was an old friend of Lugovoy. The latter appears to have been trying to find some work for him. Furthermore, it seems they both (like a lot of Russians) got a kick out of visiting London. As to whether Kovtun was really likely, deliberately, to have got himself mixed up in an intrigue like this, in the words of his ex-wife, Marina Wall:

"“I looked on the internet and found out Litvinenko is supposed to have been poisoned with thallium. I then read that Litvinenko had met two businessmen in a hotel. They are said to have been Lugovoy and Dmitry. My first thought was that I found this ridiculous and absurd. When I read that an agent was involved and then my husband, I could never imagine that. I mainly took care of our living expenses and dealt with all financial matters. He didn’t even have an account.”

When asked whether Mr Kovtun was skilled technically, for example with regard to computers, Marina Wall stated:

“I had to do everything. I had to set up the letters on the computer. He was not able to do this. Dmitry was no handyman. He could not even bang a nail into the wall. Finally, I would like to say that it is beyond my power of imagination that Dmitry is an agent or a member of the secret service. I really cannot believe that for the life of me.”" (Litvinenko Inquiry 6.40)

With Lugovoy and his family visiting London to watch that evening’s Champions League clash between Arsenal and CSKA Moscow, Kovtun appears to have decided at short notice to fly out from Hamburg for the opportunity to tag along, in spite of not having a ticket.

“Here he is [CCTV footage of Litvinenko on London street] leaving the meeting. Two days later he was admitted to his local hospital, vomiting and in great pain.”

[1] R. Sakwa, Putin: Russia's Choice (London, Routledge, 2004) p. 11
[2] For crimes including money laundering, embezzlement etc, though he was also widely suspected of murder.
[3] Alex Goldfarb with Marina Litvinenko, Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB, The Free Press, 2007.

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