The independent inquiry into the 2006 poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko points a finger in the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the former head of Russia’s spy agency.
The Litvinenko Inquiry final report, released Thursday, doesn’t outright say Putin or former Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev ordered the killers to put the radioactive isotope polonium-210 into the tea Litvinenko drank, while meeting his two alleged assassins at the Pine Bar at London’s Millennium Hotel on Nov. 6, 2006. But, it says the Russian president or Patrushev “probably approved” the murder of the former KGB spy-turned-Putin adversary.
While Litvinenko’s widow, Marina Litvinenko, says she’s grateful the facts have been made public nearly a decade after her husband’s death, there is little likelihood Putin, Patrushev or the alleged killers —Andrey Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun — will face charges.
“Putin, himself, I believe would benefit from sovereign immunity and is not subject to prosecution,” says Matthew Light, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Toronto. “The alleged assassins will not be extradited [to the U.K.] The Russian government has already made that clear.”
Marina Litvinenko called on the British government to impose “targeted sanctions and travel bans” on those alleged to have ordered and carried out the assassination of her husband — including against Putin.
“I expect [the response] will be more than zero but less than what [Litvinenko’s widow] wants,” he says.
“I would be surprised if her proposals for barring Putin and other top officials into the West are adopted because it’s just such a radical sanction and because Putin is just too important to treat like that, unfortunately.”
Light says he expects there will be some strong condemnation and maybe some form of specific sanctions in store — especially considering the use of radioactive material to assassinated a British citizen on British soil — or that this will play into the continuation of sanctions related to Ukraine.
But, he says the impact of such sanctions may not only be “symbolic” at best.
Implemented in the right way, Light says, targeted sanctions against members of Putin’s inner circle could hit home in the way previous international sanctions — in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine — have not.
“If you or your family members cannot enjoy your house on the French Riviera, you cannot send your kid to his posh boarding school in the U.K., then you are starting to feel some actual personal affects from these sanctions in a way that you might not if it’s just a matter of your $80-million net worth being shaved to $60 million.”
At the same time, he says, it may be problematic to target other Russian officials when it’s Putin and Patrushev who are being accused of approving the hit on Litvinenko.
Light says any form of penalty against Putin or his cohorts has less of an impact now that relations between Russia and the West are the most strained they’ve been in years.
“If this had happened 10 years ago … in some ways the impact may have been more dramatic,” he says.
Litvinenko’s murder isn’t isolated. Inquiry chairman Sir Robert Owens references several similar deaths and killings in his report, many of them connected to Litvinenko and his associates.
One of the most prominent was the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a Novaya Gazeta journalist and noted critic of Chechen leader Ramzan A. Kadyrov — a close ally of Putin’s. She was gunned down in her Moscow apartment one month before Litivenko, whom she worked with on Chechen causes, was poisoned in London.
While five people connected with her murder were convicted in June 2014, the mastermind of the contract killing remains a mystery, but there have long been suspicions that either Kadyrov or Putin — or both — were involved.
But Politkovskaya’s murder is different than her colleague Litvinenko, says Light.
“It occurred within Russia. She [was] a Russian citizen. You can deplore it… [but] it’s not intrinsically an inter-state matter,” he explains.
Litvinenko was granted asylum in the U.K. in 2000 and later became a British citizen. And he wasn’t going to be spilling intelligence and military secrets, Light adds. “What he was going to be spilling the beans about was Putin’s alleged involvement in organized crime,” he says.
“If you or I were killed here in Canada by a foreign government because of what we were saying about its criminal activities, that’s very different from spy versus spy stuff.”
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