The Litvinenko Inquiry – Clear eyes, cold heart, crossed fingers

There were two aspects of the Litvinenko Inquiry report, released yesterday, that surprised me. First, Sir Robert Owen, the Chairman of the Inquiry, having pulled no punches in stating who he thought had committed the murder in 2006, then went on to link the crime to President Putin in the strongest terms he was able to, given he was not speaking in a court of law.

This I find interesting, not only because I happen to believe it is correct (which you are quite at liberty to write-off as my love of Britannia and Pavlovian defence of the establishment). Apart from that, I find it interesting because of the difficult position it leaves the British Government in, a point I have alluded to in earlier blog posts about this inquiry (Parting Shots, Reading the Signals, Enemy at the Gates, Deeper Issues Deeper Questions, Small Details Big Impact).

If Sir Robert had really been acting as a government stooge he would have reined in his more inflammatory conclusions so as to leave the Prime Minister some wriggle room. David Cameron could then have huffed a few statements here and puffed a couple of asset freezes there, as he retreated behind a smokescreen of Davos-Migrant crisis-EU Referendum headlines, hand-wringing his way out of sight. So we can be reasonably assured of Sir Robert’s independence.

As it is, Mr Cameron has had to confront the issue head-on. And by issue, I mean the realities of global power politics. In his response, he was critical of Russia and then said: “But do we, at some level, go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis? Yes we do…with clear eyes and a cold heart”. And that’s the nub of it: right now, there is greater need for a workable relationship with Russia, than there is to be seen to stand as a beacon of justice in the world. It’s called Realpolitik; one of the more enduring ideas Russia has imported from Germany.

Without a court of law, in which evidence could have been challenged and the accused offered a chance to explain their actions, the Inquiry was never going to be able to prove anything or hold any person or state entity to account. So, as expected, Russia has been all but accused of illegal actions, but by having to load the report with ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’ numerous times, they are able to dismiss any accusation of foul play.

They knew this all along, of course. Which led to my second eyebrow-raising moment. I was expecting a more sophisticated and nuanced response to the report from Russian officials and media. In typical fashion there was an immediate attempt to muddy the waters sufficiently to obscure the overwhelmingly compelling evidence.

The Russian Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, dutifully went through the motions of rebutting the report’s accusations in what, were it a Hollywood spy movie, would have been described as a ‘dialled-in’ performance. Andrei Lugovoy, one of the two alleged assassins, suggested Sir Robert Owen had “gone mad”. And Russia Today then waded in by casting aspersions on the Inquiry and its Chairman. They stated:

The report stresses that its conclusions are based on many witness opinions that “would not be admissible as evidence” and that in his report Sir Robert was not bound by strict procedural rules that apply to court hearings.

I won’t play ‘he-said-you said’ over this, all I’d ask is that you follow this link to the Inquiry report and have a look at the relevant passage, paragraph 9.205 on page 242, and make your own mind up. As I said: an unsophisticated response. (In none of the rebuttals will you find an explanation for the trail of polonium-210 linked to Lugovoy and Dmitri Kovtun.)

So where does it all leave us? I think the Inquiry has produced the most accurate findings it could, given the limitations of the proceedings. We can be reasonably sure we now know what happened and why. The reality of the relationship between nation states had been laid bare for all to see, if it was ever in doubt. And a spotlight has been thrown on the regressive, reductionist and brutish state of Russian politics in 2016.

What happens next, I think, is up to Mr Putin. Mr Cameron cannot take any meaningful action, so Russia need not damage international relations further. In a few weeks, disappointingly but realistically, most of the world will move on. But if Russia miscalculates in Ukraine, Estonia (which hosts a sizeable minority of Russian nationals that Mr Putin has talked of ‘needing protection’) or Syria in the near future, the demands for some sort of concerted diplomatic action could become overwhelming.

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The Litvinenko Inquiry – Parting shots

So, despite much publicity and expectation, the keenly-sought evidence from Dmitri Kovtun, one of the two alleged murderers of Alexander Litvinenko, did not, after all, materialise.

The Inquiry has been adjourned since the end of public hearings in March. Late in proceedings Kovtun had said he wished to provide evidence via video-link and the Chairman had set aside a few days at the end of July for his testimony.  The day before he was expected to appear Kovtun pulled out, claiming legal difficulties in Russia. Few believed his actions to be anything other than a stunt, aimed either at gaining access to Inquiry materials that would be released to any ‘core’ participant, or simply as a snub to the process. Ben Emmerson, counsel to the Litvinenko family, said Kovtun’s failure to appear was because “he could never have provided a credible answer for [the] overwhelming compelling evidence [against him]”. Regardless, the Inquiry has concluded.  The last two days were taken up with closing testimonies from the Metropolitan police Service and counsel to the Litvinenko family. Neither pulled any punches.

Richard Horwell, counsel for the police, said that Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy are still wanted for murder, stating they have “no credible answer to the scientific evidence, and to the trail of polonium they left behind”. He poured scorn on alternative theories (largely suggested by Lugovoy and Kovtun) for Litvinenko’s poisoning by polonium-210, the established cause of death. At a press conference Kovtun held in Moscow on April 8th 2015, he claimed Litvinenko’s death was an ‘inadvertent suicide’, “new terminology for all of us, no doubt,” said Mr Horwell, “perhaps his message was lost in translation.”

He also suggested that the Russian state lay behind the assassination. Referring to the tell-tale signs of polonium-210 the pair left in hotels, restaurants, aircraft and offices, Mr Horwell said “Lugovoy and Kovtun were not the bungling assassins as some have suggested. They were simply ignorant of the true qualities of the poison they carried and we suggest that ignorance was essential for those engaged to administer it covertly”. The reason for this? “However important Lugovoy and Kovtun may think they are, to their masters, they were and are quite simply expendable.” Strong stuff.

Mr Emmerson, for the Litvinenko family, suggested Putin’s personal culpability. His award, on March 9th this year, of a medal of honour to Lugovoy for services to the motherland was a “menacing gesture of support [for his] henchman and executioner”. But, “with typical bluster and feigned indifference, the president of the Russian Federation has set about proving the very connection he is trying so hard to conceal”. Mr Emmerson described Putin as a “tinpot despot” and “morally deranged authoritarian”.

Such bluster inevitably appeared in the headlines and I worry that it may obscure the very compelling forensic evidence against the alleged assassins. The appearance of polonium-210 in the streets of London and Germany, on British Airways aircraft, in Arsenal’s Emirates stadium and in numerous hotel rooms with Lugovoy and Kovtun the common links in all cases is damning. The Inquiry’s conclusions as to the wider motive, Russian state involvement and Putin’s approval for such action will be harder to prove beyond reasonable doubt (although as an inquiry, such a legal benchmark will not be used).  It will, anyway, be immediately dismissed by Russia.  But, as I asked in the first post from the inquiry, any suggestion of Russian state involvement will present a diplomatic problem for the British government.

Sir Robert Owen will report his Inquiry’s findings before the end of the year.  Will it change anything? Russia Today is already retaliating, linking the inquiry to the EU sanctions against Russia and dismissing criticism by stating “the Litvinenko Inquiry is part of a package which presents Russia as a bad guy and puts it in the worst possible light”. But given Russia’s recent veto of a UN Security Council resolution to prosecute those responsible for shooting down Malaysian airliner MH17 over Ukraine and repeated probing of NATO defences by Russian forces, I suspect the Inquiry’s conclusions will just become part of the background to the worsening relationship between Russia and the West.

Full details and daily transcripts from the Inquiry can be seen at http://www.litvinenkoinquiry.org

The Litvinenko Inquiry – Reading the signals

Days 18 to 29 (end of public hearings) – up to March 30th

All good spy dramas end with an intriguing cliffhanger. In this regard, the open session of the Litvinenko Inquiry has not disappointed.

Late in proceedings the Chairman received notice supposedly from Dmitri Kovtun (one of the two alleged assassins) asking to present evidence to the Inquiry. The Chairman has provided a list of ground-rules for Mr Kovtun (see evidence from Day 29 here, starting on page 106) prior to receiving evidence on July 27th. Understandably, given the outstanding Metropolitan Police warrant for his arrest, Mr Kovtun will be appearing via video-link.  It is unlikely he will cough to the crime, although the weight of scientific evidence against him is damning. None the less his involvement has been welcomed and rounds off the public hearings nicely. The Inquiry has now adjourned for nearly four months.

It was not the only message passed to the Chairman from Russia. On March 9th, Andrei Lugovoy, the other alleged killer, received an honour for ‘Services to the Fatherland’; an act described as a “provocation” by the counsel to the Litvinenko family. It is unlikely to be coincidence. But in my view it is little more than mischief from Putin, given how little an outcome critical of him directly or Russia more widely is likely to hurt. But it is another example of how signs and statements have had to be interpreted throughout this Inquiry.

A fascinating day’s evidence was offered by Professor Robert Service, an expert in Russian history. He described how some academics and Russia-watchers are forced to interpret what is happening in Putin’s Russia by resurrecting the lost art of ‘Kremlinology’: keeping an eye on who is photographed next to Putin; who is left in Moscow when Putin goes on holiday (i.e. trusted not to launch a coup) and so on. Not since the dark days of the Cold War, before Gorbachev opened up the Soviet Union, have such methods been necessary. The openness and public discourse of the years up to the Putin-era was smothered by a “blanket of near secrecy” after the year 2000. “This did not happen accidentally or naturally” Professor Service said.

The Litvinenko Inquiry has, at times, sounded quite other-worldly. It is not everyday one hears of a videotape allegedly held by Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, purporting to show Putin in “compromising sexual circumstances of a homosexual nature”. Likewise, British courts do not often discuss nuclear-suitcase-bombs. There was barely concealed tittering when the manager of the Best Western hotel in Shaftesbury Avenue described Lugovoy and Kovtun as looking like “a donkey with a saddle” in ill-fitting and garishly coloured suits as they checked in to rooms subsequently discovered to have high doses of polonium-210.

But, ultimately, the story the Inquiry told was one of threats, bullies, murky deals and unexplained deaths. The polonium-210 used to murder Alexander Litvinenko could only have been produced in a state facility and there are few of these around the world. Many close to power in modern Russia (which, the Inquiry heard, includes organised criminal gangs) had a motive to kill Litvinenko. And, even if he neither ordered nor tacitly condoned the act, Vladimir Putin has ushered in an era of thuggish political patronage and a centralisation of unaccountable power in Russia which allows such killings to occur.

The Inquiry Chairman intends to produce his report before Christmas. Any ripples will likely be limited to the Western media and political establishments; the impact in Russia, I believe, will be negligible although it will be worth seeing if, and how, Russian media organs such as Russia Today react. As Professor Service said: “the Kremlin is much more of a closed castle in our century than it was in the last 15 years of the previous century.”

Some linked material reproduced here is courtesy of the Litvinenko Inquiry –www.litvinenkoinquiry.org.

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.

The Litvinenko Inquiry – Deeper issues, deeper questions.

Days 5 to 8 – up to February 10th 

“In relation to any given subject, the conversation would develop into something quite far-reaching and quite complex that was really difficult to grasp…it would change from one topic to another, [leading to] deeper issues, deeper questions, deeper answers.” So said a witness to the Inquiry on February 9th when asked of Alexander Litvinenko’s indulgence of conspiracy theories.  The same could be said for the whole inquiry.

Over the last few days the inquiry has dug further into the motivations and characters of the three people at the heart of this inquiry: Alexander Litvinenko and his two alleged killers, Andrei Lugovoy and Dimitri Kovtun.  We have heard how, after the rejection of Mr Litvinenko’s concerns about the activities of the secret unit within the FSB (successor to the KGB) for which he worked, his relationship with Vladimir Putin, his new boss, soured. Mr Litvinenko, through his work as an investigator of organised crime, already believed Putin to be in league with a St Petersburg crime gang. Having lost the confidence of his boss and many colleagues through his questioning of orders and doubting the legality of his unit’s activities, he was subsequently shepherded out of the FSB. His picture was even used for target practice (see video here).

He then wrote two books, the first of which was called ‘Blowing Up Russia’. In it Mr Litvinenko alleged Putin had masterminded the 1999 apartment block bombings in Moscow, which had been blamed on Chechen separatists. These caused hundreds of deaths, sparked the second Chechen war and paved the way for Putin’s ascendency to President of Russia. A TV documentary based on the book, called ‘Assassination of Russia’, was promoted by three members of the Russian parliament who tried to investigate the allegations. All three were killed or subsequently died in unexplained circumstances.

Undeterred, Mr Litvinenko then published his second book, ‘The Gang from the Lubyanka’. His central allegation was that: “The main secret [in Russia] is the relationship of our President Putin and the criminal element by the name of Barsukov-Kumarin. This is the leader of the Tambov criminal organisation.” His actions could be indicative of a reckless flair for self-publicity.  Either that or he had decided to adapt the tactic, beloved of many spies, of ‘hiding in plain sight’. So, instead of blending into the crowd he chose to stand out as far as possible, believing that by being so public with his accusations no action could be taken against him. Two weeks before his poisoning he even gave a speech in London’s Frontline Club to accuse Putin of ordering the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (see video here). But as Mr Emmerson, counsel to the Litvinenko family, said in his opening statement: “In revealing Putin’s links to organised crime, Mr Litvinenko had reached a point where he was hovering near the flame like the proverbial moth.” Bold stuff.

Less is known about Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun, as they are not contributing in any way to this inquiry.  This is primarily because Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service has issued warrants for their arrest for Mr Litvinenko’s murder (see here and here). So we’re not expecting to see them any time soon, either in person or video link. But the inquiry did hear evidence from earlier statements made by Mr Lugovoy, who was by far the more loquacious.

The inquiry heard from a press conference Mr Lugovoy, (who is currently a Russian MP) gave in 2007, in the wake of the allegations against him.  He described how he was born into a military family and was “brought up in the tradition of a real Russian officer”. He said he was “proud that for the last few years…Russia started to gain its place in the world as a stage of geopolitical importance, which has always influenced politics and I hope will influence politics. It was so before the October revolution, and after it. There was a small period of time when nobody took Russia into account for ten years. Now, gentlemen, you will have to take Russia into account”. He considered Mr Litvinenko a traitor and, when asked if he should be killed in the interests of the Russian state answered: “If someone has caused the Russian state serious damage, they should be exterminated. This is my firm belief and the belief of any normal Russian.”

Retired British Major General, John Holmes, head of a security company for which Mr Litvinenko was a consultant, said in evidence on February 9th that “it’s not an open book in Russia…Russia is a very opaque place”. Mr Lugovoy’s statement was a rare example of unequivocal Russian clarity.

More to follow…

All linked material reproduced here is courtesy of the Litvinenko Inquiry –www.litvinenkoinquiry.org.