The Litvinenko Inquiry – Enemy at the gates

Days 9 to 17 – up to February 27th

On Day 15 of the Inquiry, Evgheniy Limarev, a former member of the SVR (Russia’s overseas intelligence agency, formed on the demise of the KGB), was providing evidence. Mr Emmerson, counsel for the Litvinenko family, asked “so, basically, the high-ranking members of the SVR  that you dealt with were mafia organised criminals, correct?”. “For me, yes”, he replied.

It was an illuminating exchange, bringing to a close the recent passage of the inquiry examining the security industry in Russia and the workings of the so-called Sistema (also known as the Siloviki), Putin’s inner coterie of advisers and power brokers that wield opaque and unaccountable influence in modern Russia. The inquiry has heard that in 2003 Russia adopted a policy authorising the “elimination outside of the Russian Federation” of opponents to the state (see here). A number of witnesses gave evidence purporting to shed light on these operations. The murder of Boris Nemtsov, virtually at the gates of the Kremlin on February 27th, is seen by many to be a continuation of this Russian state policy towards opponents; the same policy that led to Litvinenko’s poisoning.

The more I hear from the inquiry, the more I am convinced that Putin (if he cares at all for the outcome) will be secretly pleased if Litvinenko’s killing is deemed to be state-sponsored, for two reasons. First, as I said in the first Litvinenko Inquiry post, a finding of Russian state culpability will heap pressure on the British government to take diplomatic action. Second, a conclusion from a judicial system independent of, and arguably hostile to, Russia, will reinforce the idea that it is not mere hyperbole that enemies of the Russian state who are too vocal in their opposition may be targeted.  If the Duma or a Russian judge had made such a statement some would have detected the whiff of scare-mongering.  Coming from a British High Court Judge in a Western inquiry, the conclusion would be far more believable.

But as a friend with regular business dealings in Russia told me recently, “Putin doesn’t give a shit about the Litvinenko Inquiry”. Of far more concern to him, and generating many more column inches in Russia right now, is any ramping up of sanctions over Ukraine and the possibility of Russia being ejected from the international payments system known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT. Some in Russia say being forced out of this governmental Paypal-type mechanism would be an act of war. The European Central Bank, albeit in less dramatic language, makes a similar point.

Putin views the West as having a finger on the SWIFT trigger and could take the current narrative on defence spending as implying that European members of NATO really aren’t serious about collective defence (as American General Ray Odierno’s comments regarding Britain imply). Does that make Ukraine any more stable? Or the Baltic states (NATO members with large Russian minorities that may need ‘protecting’) more secure? Putin sees Russia locked in a new Cold War with the West encroaching on her borders, and actions in the Ukraine, Nemtsov’s murder in Moscow last Friday and Litvinenko’s killing all part of Russia’s response to this contest. At a time of heightened international tension, Putin may well be looking at the Chairman of the Litvinenko Inquiry as an ally, not an adversary.

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