The Russian government reacted with full force to the release of a British inquiry’s report stating that President Vladimir Putin “probably approved” the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a KGB officer turned Putin critic. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the report was a “joke” and its findings can be “can be attributed to that elegant British sense of humor.” Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom Alexander Yakovenko called it a “gross provocation.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blasted it as a “nontransparent investigation with results determined beforehand” — a particularly rich accusation coming from a government that often delivers justice in exactly that manner.
Why the outrage? The outlines of the incident have been clear for almost a decade, and the 328-page report, by former Judge Robert Owen, only adds detail to the long-known story. Litvinenko, who obtained British citizenship in 2006 after fleeing Russia in 2000, met with two other former KGB agents, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, on Nov. 1, 2006, at London’s Millennium Hotel. Litvinenko drank green tea spiked with the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210. He fell violently ill and died on Nov. 23, at age 44. Kovtun and Lugovoy (who has since received a state honor from Putin) live in Russia, where they are safe from British extradition requests.
Already facing European Union sanctions and international isolation over its intervention in Ukraine since 2014, the Russian government has reacted furiously. The report flies in the face of its campaign of rapprochement with the West. Russia desires to be a great world power, and the sanctions and its 2014 expulsion from the G-8 group of leading industrialized powers hurt its image.
The accusation that Putin and his former top security services chief, Nikolai Patrushev, were probably complicit in Litvinenko’s murder reminds Western leaders and the public that the Russian state regularly kills its critics, even if they reside abroad and are citizens of other sovereign states. This is not to suggest that British Prime Minister David Cameron should be watching his tea. But it does lay bare the costs of cooperating with a country with a paranoid and violent security service and a leader from those very ranks.
One crucial element of Russia’s effort to improve its image has been its intervention in Syria’s civil war, which has long made the West appear powerless and divided. Russia has launched airstrikes that it claims are against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but many observers and Western officials say they target mostly the Western-backed opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia’s.
The British government is unlikely to sanction Russia over the inquiry’s findings, as it wants to maintain official cooperation in Syria against ISIL. Nevertheless, Cameron has gone from saying in December that he would “work together” with Moscow to take on ISIL to saying that he had to maintain “some sort of relationship” with Russia. He called the murder “absolutely appalling,” and British Home Secretary Theresa May said the murder was a “blatant and unacceptable” breach of international law. Cameron’s critics in the opposition Labour Party have criticized his response as weak and demanded a review of all the U.K.’s links to Russia.
The report paints a much darker picture of Putin that flies in the face of Russian efforts to portray him in a lighter manner. Especially of late, a great deal of Western news coverage of him — amplified and encouraged by Russian state media — has been on the softer side. He has inspired a perfume line called Leaders Number One. He has inserted himself into the U.S. presidential race by praising the “talented” Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, who in turn has drawn criticism from his rivals for praising Putin. A 2016 calendar of photographs of Putin in action made international news.
Some of the allegations Litvinenko made before his death go to the heart of the legitimacy of Putin’s government. He accused the FSB, Russia’s security service, of being responsible for a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities in 1999. Putin, then the prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, used the attacks as a pretext to escalate a military campaign against rebels in Russia’s semiautonomous Republic of Chechnya. Partly as a result, Putin went from being a virtual unknown to ascending to the presidency.
He has denied the FSB was involved, but books by Western scholars and journalists such as John Dunlop and David Satter, along with Russian investigative reporting, have presented convincing evidence that the agency had a role. Litvinenko also publicly accused Putin of ordering the unsolved 2006 killing of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who reported critically on the war in Chechnya.
That Putin ordered the killing of Litvinenko is practically impossible to prove conclusively; anyone who gave such proof would almost certainly be killed like Litvinenko. Hence Russian officials have cited the report’s use of “probably” as a reason to dismiss it entirely. However, the report is measured and based on independent analysis and evidence. It would be equally rejected — and would have less credence — if the adverb in question had been “undoubtedly.”
Internationally, Putin is well known for his KGB background and for the killings of journalists and opposition figures that have been a ubiquitous feature of his rule. But these facts often get brushed aside in favor of Russia’s supposed campaign against ISIL in Syria and Internet-ready images of the president. The Litvinenko inquiry is a reminder of the true nature of Putin and the state he has created.