Leaked US cables fail to shed light on Litvinenko killing

The killing of former KGB agent Alexandar Litvinenko in 2006 is still a mystery. The recently leaked US diplomatic cables by whistleblower website Wikileaks throw some light on the entire episode but there are no clues regarding who might have killed him and why.

A cable, dated December 1, 2006 (from Moscow), by US Ambassador William J. Burns details various conspiracy theories put forward by the Russian media after the killing. Nothing substantial come out of the document as to whether who could be responsible for the elimination of Litvinenko.

The killing of Litvinenko was also discussed in a meeting between top US and French officials. According to another leaked cable, dated December 12, 2006, then US Ambassador Craig Stapleton was of the view that the British investigation into the killing might point to some sort of Russian involvement. But the then French presidential diplomatic advisor Maurice Gourdault-Montagne speculated Litvinenko’s killing was a result of “settling of accounts between services rather than occurring under direct order from the Kremlin.” To this, the US official argued whether “rogue security elements” could operate in a country like Britain without the knowledge of then Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Two more leaked cables have references to Litvinenko but have no significant details about the killing.

To understand more about the entire episode, I have reproduced below an article that I had written in December 2006 after Litvinenko’s brutal killing.


In the latest James Bond movie Casino Royale, ‘M’, while struggling with the complexities of terror financing, comments how she misses Cold War. The recent incident of the poisoning of an ex-Russian Spy in London suggests that her real life counterparts wouldn’t have to wait long for its return.

Forty-three-year-old Alexandar Litvinenko, an ex-KGB agent, died on the night of November 23 at the University College Hospital of London after apparently being poisoned by a radioactive element polonium-210.

The ex-Russian spy complained of feeling sick on November 1, after he met two Russian men at a London hotel, one of them a former KGB officer. He also met Mario Scaramella, an Italian security consultant, at a sushi bar where he is believed to have received documents about Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s death.

Litvinenko was transferred to the University college hospital in Central London after his condition worsens on November 17.

On November 19, it was reported that he was poisoned with thallium. His condition deteriorated and he died on November 23 in the intensive care unit of the hospital. Doctors attending Litvinenko failed to identify the cause of symptoms that reduced the healthy and fit agent to virtually a ghost with his organs failing one by one.

On November 24, health experts said that the ex-spy might have been deliberately poisoned by a radioactive matter, believed to be polonium-210.

Litvinenko’s death is being treated as a murder by the British investigators. He was laid to rest on December 7 after a Muslim prayer service.

Litvinenko was in the military and after that he became a security agent in the KGB, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. The ex-Russian spy came in news when he said his superiors ordered him to kill exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky. He was charged with abuse of office and spent nine months in jail before he was acquitted. He fled from Russia and was granted political asylum in UK in 2000.

Long arm of SMERSH

Litvinenko was a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His struggle with life until he died was extensively reported in the Western press.

But the big question is who poisoned Litvinenko. The mystery is becoming complex with every passing day.

There are a host of conspiracy theories floating as to who was responsible for the ex-spy’s death. Some analysts have suggested that the way Litvinenko was murdered, strongly suggests the long arm of a reborn SMERSH has struck again.

In April 1943, Russian dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the creation of a new military counterintelligence service. Stalin suggested that the organisation be given the name SMERSH or Smyert Shpionam – loosely understood as Death to Spies.

The unit holds a vital position in Russian intelligence history. The duties of SMERSH were to trace, and kidnap or assassinate prominent Russian émigrés considered enemies and traitors to Russia. It is said that one of its most prominent victims was Leon Trotsky who was assassinated in Mexico.

History of assassinations

  • Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, died in 1978. He was stabbed in the thigh in London with a spring-loaded umbrella that left a poison pellet in his leg. The KGB was suspected.
  • Ivan Kivelidi, a Russian banker, died along with his secretary in 1995 after using a poisoned telephone.
  • Yuri Shchekochikhin, an anticorruption journalist who wrote about corruption in Russia, died in 2003. Poison was suspected.
  • Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and Kremlin critic, fell ill in 2004 on a flight from Moscow. She suspected poison. She was later murdered in October 2006 by gunfire.
  • In 2004, Victor Yushchenko, Ukrainian presidential candidate during the elections was poisoned after deadly dioxin was slipped into his food. Yushchenko survived but was disfigured.

The prime assassination method that SMERSH uses is poison, administered in various ways, including on darts, in cigarettes and in inhalers for asthmatics.

Analysts believe that Litvinenko’s defection to UK and the subsequent allegations he made against his former agency and his colleagues made him a target. Litvinenko was punished for his betrayal and more than that the entire world saw it to be punished.

Litvinenko had written a book, Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within, in which he claimed that FSB agents and not Chechen rebels carried out the bombings that leveled apartment buildings across Russia in 1999.

According to him, the motive behind pinning the blame to Chechen rebels was to garner public support to attack Chechnya and help Putin win the presidential polls.

But there are some who believe that Litvinenko’s death could be a warning to Russian exiles living in the West to show what can happen to them.

Barrage of allegations

The former agent, in his deathbed statement, accused Putin of having him killed.

“You may succeed in silencing one man. But a howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me, but to beloved Russia and its people?” read his statement.

But Putin said the ex-spy’s death was being used by as a political provocation against Russia.

“Death is always tragic. I present my condolences to the friends and the family of Mr Litvinenko,” said Putin in Helsinki.

Kremlin spokesman was more blunt. He said the charges of their involvement in Litvinenko’s death were absurd and nonsense.

However, the past allegations that Litvinenko made against the Russian president suggest that Putin had enough reason to see him go. Litvinenko’s job at FSB (Federal Security Bureau), KGB’s successor, was corruption busting. He had claimed that inside his own office, senior officers were hand in glove with criminals. According to him, when he tried to appraise Putin about this rot he was fired.

Litvinenko, in an article written by him, also claimed that President Putin is personally involved at least in a cover-up of organized criminal activities connected with drug traffic in Russia and Europe.

Litvinenko also publicly blamed Kremlin for the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. He was investigating the death of the journalist before he was infected with poison. Politkovskaya was highly critical of Russian policy in Chechnya and was shot at her apartment building in Moscow on October 07, 2006. An attempt on her life was made in the past too when she was poisoned in a flight from Moscow, but she had survived then.

According to his fans, Litvinenko was not only investigating the murder of Politkovskaya but he was trying to procure incriminating documents regarding Kremlin’s role in dismantling of the energy giant Yukos energy and jailing of its billionaire owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

In yet another bizarre allegation, the ex-Russian spy wrote a sensational article dated July 05, 2006, on Chechenpress website, accusing President Putin of having sex with under age boys. He claimed that Putin was a paedophile.

He even alleged that al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri was trained by the FSB in Dagestan in the years before the 9/11 attacks.

Yet many political commentators doubt that Kremlin would risk such negative international publicity to silence an inconsequential figure whose accusations were never taken seriously.

But the British intelligence services are convinced that FSB was behind the poisoning of Litvinenko.

A team of British investigators is in Moscow to collect information on Litvinenko’s death. The Russian authorities have said they would cooperate with the British investigation but they refused to extradite any of the possible suspects in the poisoning.

According to sources, one of the possible suspects is former Russian agent Angrei Lugovoi, who traveled to London three times over the month before Litvinenko’s death and met with him four times. Lugovoi met Litvinenko on November 1, the day he is believed to have been poisoned. He is also in hospital and is being treated for poisoning.

“We suspect that someone has been trying to frame us. Someone passed this stuff onto us…so as to point the finger at us and distract the police,” said Lugovoi.

But the investigators believe that a former FSB agent was intentionally employed to easily lure Litvinenko at various locations. This would also shield the officials in Kremlin from any direct wrongdoing in the plan to get rid of Litvinenko.

Deliberate action

Russia, on the other hand, has announced its own criminal investigation into the murder of Litvinenko and the attempted murder of a Russian businessman Dmitri Kovtun who had met with him in London.

But according to Kremlin sources, exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky might have a hand in Litvinenko’s death. Berezovsky stays in London and is believed to be another fierce Putin critic. He had financed Litvinenko’s stay in UK. Even the book written by the ex-spy about FSB’s involvement in apartment bombings was financed by Berezovsky.

“Berezovsky could have staged a deliberate action against Russia,” said a Kremlin official.

According to this version, Litvinenko’s slow death in full media glare offered a propaganda tool to Berezovsky who is considered one of Putin’s bitter enemies.

Another theory put forward by political commentators in Russia is that Litvinenko became a victim in the ongoing power struggle for control in Kremlin. According to them, the killing was carried out to undermine President Putin ahead of the 2008 presidential elections.

Litvinenko was in the FSB’s anti-corruption department before he was arrested and charged. Former security officials claim that he could have been bumped off by the mafia due to his past investigations.

Controversial character

There are doubts surrounding Litvinenko’s life also. Several media reports even portrayed him as a blackmailer, smuggler and even a gangster. Some of the key details that emerged after this death include:

  • A story in the The Guardian newspaper revealed that FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) has also got involved in the investigations of the ex-spy’s death after details emerged that he planned to make thousands of pounds by blackmailing senior Russian spies and Oligarchs.
  • Julia Svetlichnaja, a Russian doctoral candidate at the University of Westminster claimed that Litvinenko had told her that he was going to blackmail or sell sensitive information related to powerful people inside Kremlin.
  • Another British newspaper claimed that Litvinenko had admitted to Scaramella that he was the mastermind behind the smuggling of radioactive material in Zurich in 2000.
  • Litvinenko converted to Islam before his death and requested to be buried according to Muslim rites. This was revealed by his father.
  • Another unexplained link in this fascinating and murky tale is the way Litvinenko’s pictures were released to the media by one of the leading PR firms of UK. There is no information about who footed the 10,000 pounds a day PR bill for him.

The mystery behind Alexandar Litvinenko’s death is getting thicker as each day passes. To some, Litvinenko was a courageous defector and whistleblower, to others a traitor and an Oligarch’s assistant.

Doubts are being raised about all the people who met him on November 1. But what happened behind the scenes and who benefited from Litvinenko’s death would perhaps never come out. (With media inputs)

One thought on “Leaked US cables fail to shed light on Litvinenko killing

  1. Hi CT, I am interested in this also. (Please take a look at my latest post for details.) Your blog post makes for engaging reading; you have most definitely given me some food for thought!

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