Many of the popular responses to the Litvinenko Inquiry — released nearly a decade after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 with polonium, probably by former agents of the Russian FSB — have been inane, poorly informed, and wildly speculative. Some have taken the line that having killed off Russian democracy, Vladimir Putin should be brought to trial for state-sanctioned murder. Others worry needlessly that Britain will be sued for pointing the finger at a head of state in a government-sponsored probe. Either way, Putin continues to make great clickbait.
But unfortunately the Litvinenko Inquiry report itself is not much better. It leaves us no closer to establishing who was responsible for Litvinenko's murder than we were prior to its release. It has prolonged the suffering of Litvinenko's family, who are determined to seek justice in spite of the fact that none can be forthcoming. It is an embarrassing reminder that in the post-9/11 security environment a highly radioactive element was smuggled with impunity into London, and it is little wonder that the British Government initially tried to block a public hearing into Litvinenko's murder.
Uncomfortably for Britain's political and financial classes who have eagerly courted Russian business for years, it has led to a torrent of demands for the UK to rid itself of 'dirty' Russian money. And it has come at a time when the West is trying once again to build bridges with Moscow, in the aftermath of the (for the moment at least) successful deal with Iran, and when the West is hoping to reach a compromise with Russia over the campaigns against ISIS in Syria.
Let's start with the perpetrators. The report concludes that two former FSB agents, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitri Kovtun, poisoned Litvinenko. Although we knew that beforehand, it seems a pretty reasonable finding. Traces of polonium were found on British Airways planes that both men travelled in, at the flat of Kovtun's ex-wife and in a car he rented. After meeting with Lugovoy and Kovtun at the Millennium Hotel on 1 November 2006, radiation was found on people who attended Litvinenko's next appointments, and in the car of the exiled Chechen rebel Akhmad Zakayev, who drove Litvinenko home. At the very least Lugovoy and Kovtun (who himself was treated for radiation poisoning) would find the chain of evidence difficult to explain. However, they are unlikely to visit the UK, or any country that may extradite them there.
Beyond that, virtually nothing can be proven. The report notes that only circumstantial evidence links Nikolai Patrushev, then head of the FSB and now Secretary of Russia's Security Council, to the hit. It then speculates that Vladimir Putin 'probably' authorised it.
Even though correlation doesn't equal causation, it's surprising that many accept this as fact. How could they possibly know? They were certainly not privy to the inquiry's closed-door hearings with UK intelligence specialists, much less able to judge the usefulness of the information those specialists may or may not have provided. Nor would any sensitive information, either human or electronic, ever be made public for fear of compromising sources.
In other words, there is no 'smoking gun' pointing to the Russian President. But let's say there was. Would it really make much of a difference to a potential prosecution, or to British diplomacy more generally? One suspects not. Heads of state — even those without large nuclear arsenals and a permanent seat on the UNSC — are notoriously difficult to indict, capture and try, as the International Criminal Court has gloomily discovered over the years. There is also nothing to be gained from punishing Russia on the basis of what the inquiry calls a 'prima facie' case. In fact, even the 'smartest' sanctions would inevitably lead to a disproportionate tit-for-tat response.
In other words there are bigger stakes for British and Western foreign and security policy. It is necessary to ensure that promising Russia-West cooperation over the Iran nuclear deal does not fracture. Prime Minister Cameron has also invested significant political capital in courting China, which Russia sees as one of its main partners. But even more crucially, there is a need to ensure continued Russian cooperation in applying political pressure on Damascus, and facilitating humanitarian aid deliveries into war-torn Syria.
Just days away from peace talks, Russia is unlikely to abandon Assad, especially since it has trade and security interests there that would be threatened if he were deposed. But Moscow may be persuaded to support an incremental power transition and a face-saving way out for the dictator. If a peace were brokered in Syria, Russian military capabilities could then be directed against ISIS rather than its current targets which include anti-regime groups supported by the West. That, in turn, would be a major breakthrough in Russia-NATO relations, which have been languishing since well before the crisis in Ukraine, and an important step towards consolidating a rules-based order.
That said, it was important for the British Government to come out with some strong wording about the Inquiry's findings, even though this was more about domestic optics than foreign policy. After all, it was an act of murder on British soil that used an extravagantly poisonous material — polonium 210 is 250,000 times more toxic than cyanide — that has no real commercial use, and is mostly made in Russia. It could have been sponsored by a state, by a leading figure in one of the Kremlin's competing clans, by the Russian mafia or by a mixture of those. It is instructive that while Litvinenko was a junior FSB official, he did his most important work on organised crime. And in Russia, like other semi-authoritarian nations, it is very difficult to tell where official channels leave off and where greyer ones begin. So the perpetrators certainly wanted to send a message that any dissenting voices could be eliminated. They were also unconcerned by the prospect that they might subsequently be implicated.
But given the broader imperatives facing the UK, the upshot is that the Litvinenko Inquiry is an excellent illustration of the potential dangers of pursuing populism at the expense of foreign policy. Now the report has been released, Downing Street has uttered the appropriately robust rhetoric and done precisely nothing in real terms, presumably in the hope that it will go away. That will be cold comfort for Litvinenko's family. But in strategic terms it is an understandable course of action.
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