24 January 2016

On Putin the poisoner

According to a report by former British High Court judge Robert Owen, the 2006 murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London was carried out by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and probably approved by President Vladimir Putin. Putin has, of course, denied the charge but I would put my money on the good judge, partly because he is a more credible figure, partly because his report is exceptionally thorough, and partly because the operation is typical Putin.

Indeed, so much murder is associated with the Russian president that the idea he would have Litvinenko killed comes as no surprise. He certainly had good reason. Litvinenko accused the FSB of carrying out the 1999 apartment-block bombings that killed more than 200 people in Russia, and which Putin blamed on Chechen separatists and used to launch his brutal suppression of Chechen independence.

The animosity between the two men goes back decades to when Putin was the director of the FSB and Litvinenko complained about corruption (to no effect). He accused the FSB of collusion with organized crime and in 2006 wrote an article claiming Putin was a paedophile who had used his power as FSB chief to destroy videotapes of himself having sex with underage boys. Shortly before his death, Litvinenko accused the president of responsibility for the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. And it didn't help that he was working with MI6 and two of Putin's most outspoken critics, oligarch Boris Berezovsky and exiled Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev.

What will come of this? Not much. Britain desperately wants Russian support in dealing with the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the British government didn't want Sir Robert’s inquiry in the first place and certainly would have preferred his report not be published at this sensitive time.

Putin has gained a certain degree of respectability in the West since becoming a more-or-less partner in the fight against the Islamic State, and the report serves as a good reminder of the kind of man we are dealing with. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will continue to have a relationship with him but "with clear eyes and a very cold heart." Wise approach.

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