When a public inquiry into the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko reports its findings next week, it is widely expected that the Russian state will be held responsible.
But there will be less clarity about the motive for the murder. Why, after the former KGB and FSB agent had been in Britain for six years, was it so important to assassinate him with such apparent haste?
New evidence presented to the Litvinenko Justice Foundation in London suggests he could have been killed to prevent him from testifying about Vladimir Putin’s links with Russian organised crime. A Spanish prosecutor says he had arranged to hear evidence from Litvinenko in November 2006 — a week after he drank a lethal dose of Polonium-210 in London.
José Grinda González, who investigated Russian mafia activity in Spain, said he had decided to question Litvinenko after learning “from colleagues” that he had information about links between gangsters and senior members of the Russian government.
According to a book by investigative journalists Cruz Morcillo and Pablo Muños, Litvinenko had given this information to Spanish security agents at a secret meeting outside the country in July 2006. After returning to Madrid, the agents passed the claims on to a Spanish judge, Fernando Andreu, who issued a summons to question Litvinenko.
Late last year Grinda filed an indictment of the top mafia figures in Spain, which listed Russian state officials allegedly involved in their activities, among them current and former senior government ministers and top law enforcement officials.
The indictment also claimed to reveal wide business connections between the notorious Tambov crime family and billionaire members of the powerful Ozero cooperative founded by Putin. This group has been designated Putin’s “inner circle” by US and EU authorities, who imposed sanctions on some of them in connection with Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Grinda said he had evidence from another Russian expatriate, a former Duma deputy and self-confessed member of the Tambov gang, Mikhail Monastyrsky.
The information obtained by the Spanish investigation was deemed so important that it was passed on to the US diplomats — and repeated in US diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks. In one cable from US embassy in Madrid, Grinda was quoted as saying that he agreed with “the thesis made by Litvinenko” of the virtual merger of the Russian state and the mafia. Another cable refers to a meeting between Litvinenko and Spanish agents in May 2006.
At the London inquiry into his death, police testified that Litvinenko had cancelled a trip to Madrid from his hospital bed. It appeared at the time that the trip was part of his ongoing work for the British and Spanish secret services.
But the suggestion that he planned to meet prosecutors as an official witness places new importance on this trip that never took place.
It could explain why he was assassinated with such apparent haste, using amateur killers who were reckless and persistent. The two alleged assassins, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, initially missed their target and had to return to London three times before they finally succeeded in putting radioactive Polonium-210 in Litvinenko’s tea at the Millennium hotel in Grosvenor Square, London.
How did the Kremlin find out about Litvinenko’s plan to meet the Spanish prosecutor? His trips to Spain were a tight secret, known only to his wife and the closest of friends – but even they did not know the reason.
Yet, according to evidence given to the inquiry, Lugovoi was fully aware of Litvinenko’s doings. In fact, the former agent was supposed to accompany Litvinenko in November and meet “his associates” in Madrid.
Lugovoi knew that Litvinenko was working against the Russian mafia in Spain – he said so himself in an interview immediately after the murder.
It is inconceivable that Litvinenko would have told Lugovoi what he was up to without the consent of his British and Spanish handlers. Thus, Lugovoi can be rightly called a double – or even triple – agent.
Apparently, his masters in Moscow preferred “burning” him to infiltrating him into the Spanish investigation. This adds credence to the theory that eliminating Litvinenko was a matter of utmost urgency for the Kremlin.
Litvinenko was one of the first Russian expatriates who tried to alert western policy makers to the criminality and corruption of the Putin regime. During his lifetime his voice was not heard.
While he lay dying in a London hospital, he addressed his alleged assassin with these words: “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life”. A decade later his prophecy has finally come true.
Alex Goldfarb is the president of the Litvinenko Justice Foundation in London. Anastasia Kirilenko is a Russian freelance journalist based in Paris