UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Alexander Litvinenko

In 1988 Alexander Litvinenko was recruited to join what was then still called the Committee for State Security (KGB). He underwent a period of intelligence training at a KGB facility in Siberia, and in 1991 was posted to KGB headquarters in Moscow. In 1991 Litvinenko was assigned to the Economic Security and Organised Crime Unit of what was then still the KGB. He continued to work in that department until about 1994, when he was transferred to the Anti-Terrorism Department of what had by then become the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK).

Within the FSB, the Department for the the Investigation and Prevention of Organised Crime, known as URPO, was a secret unit. Its offices, for example, were not situated at the ‘Lubyanka’, the main FSB headquarters. URPO members, were tasked with special operations, which were on the borderline of legality. URPO as a top secret department of the FSB whose role was, “killing political and high business men without verdict".

When he moved to URPO, Alexander Litvinenko was put in charge of a section of some eight or ten officers. Some of these men, in particular Victor Shebalin and Andrei Ponkin, were to play an important role in the events that brought Litvinenko’s career in the FSB to an end. Litvinenko found that his immediate superior in his new unit was to be Alexander Gusak, with whom he had served in Chechnya. The head of URPO was General Khokholkov, and his deputy was Captain Alexander Kamyshnikov. The overall head of the FSB at the time was Nikolay Kovalyev.

By the end of 1997, Mr Litvinenko had been tasked with the conduct of a number of URPO operations that he regarded as unlawful. The first concerned a former FSB officer named Mikhail Trepashkin. Trepashkin was a critic of the FSB, as Mr Litvinenko was subsequently to become. In 1997 Trepashkin had recently resigned from his post and had brought proceedings against the FSB. Litvinenko and his URPO section were ordered to assault Trepashkin, and to take his bag and his FSB identity card away from him.

The second of these operations concerned Umar Dzhabrailov, a wealthy Chechen businessman living in Moscow. In his book "The Gang from the Lubyanka", Litvinenko described his section being tasked: “to kidnap a prominent businessman Umar Dzhabrailov [to get money] to pay ransom for our officers in Chechen captivity…”. The book went on to assert, and Marina Litvinenko also made this point in her oral evidence, that Litvinenko and his section were authorised to shoot policemen who had been tasked with guarding Dzhabrailov if it became necessary in the course of the kidnapping.

The last, and most important, of these three operations related to Berezovsky. In legal documents that he filed in Russia in 1998, Litvinenko was very clear about what he had been told to do on this occasion. Referring to “the order to assassinate B.A. Berezovsky”, Litvinenko stated: “I was instructed by A.P. Kamyshnikov to physically exterminate Berezovsky and considered his words an order. I disobeyed the order only because it was an illegal order.”

Marina Litvinenko took a firmer line, accepting the proposition from her counsel that Mr Litvinenko understood that he had received, “an unequivocal instruction to commit an act of murder by his superior within the FSB in a secret, unaccountable unit”.

Litvinenko and his colleagues, including Gusak, were unhappy with the orders they had been given. They were particularly concerned about the orders relating to Berezovsky. They took a number of steps in response, the culmination of which was the well known press conference on 17 November 1998, in which Litvinenko and others publicly denounced the FSB in front of the world’s media. In his account in The Gang from the Lubyanka, Litvinenko stated that by this stage both he and Mr Berezovsky had spoken separately to Kovalyev, the head of the FSB, about the order to kill Berezovsky. Litvinenko recorded that after his meeting he heard from Mr Gusak that Mr Kovalyev was “very unhappy” that he had told Mr Berezovsky about the order: “He said it was – a betrayal of the interests of the security services. To go and give everything to a stranger.”

On 17 November 1998, Litvinenko went public with his criticisms of the FSB at a press conference in Moscow. Litvinenko appeared before the press without a mask. Also present and unmasked was Trepashkin. Four of Litvinenko’s fellow officers from URPO, including Mr Shebalin and Mr Ponkin, also appeared, wearing either skiing masks or sunglasses.

Never in the history of the Russian security services has the FSB experienced such a public exposure. Litvinenko and the others talked about corruption, criminalisation of the FSB and the fact that the system that was set up to protect people was turning into the system from which people needed to be protected. They also aired the details of extrajudicial acts that the FSB conspired to undertake against Trepashkin, Dzhabrailov and Berezovsky.

Putin, Kovalyev’s successor as head of the FSB, publicly criticised Litvinenko and his colleagues for going public with their allegations at the November 1998 press conference

In December 1998 Mr Litvinenko and all the officers involved in the press conference were dismissed from the FSB. Mr Berezovsky gave them jobs as consultants. Litvinenko was arrested on 25 March 1999. He was charged and detained in the FSB Lefortovo prison in Moscow, where spent eight months in detention. Litvinenko’s former colleagues were pressured to give false evidence against him, but refused to do so. When the trial eventually took place before the Moscow Regional Military Court on 26 November 1999, Mr Litvinenko was acquitted of all charges. Litvinenko was again detained, but in a different prison. He was released on bail in mid December 1999. These new proceedings collapsed before trial.

Litvinenko left Russia in October 2000. He flew to the UK by purchasing tickets from Istanbul to Tbilisi via London, a trip that did not require any transit visas. Having landed at Heathrow Airport, Litvinenko approached the first police officer that he saw in the transit area and said, “I am KGB officer and I’m asking for political asylum”.

Litvinenko was taken ill during the night of 1 November 2006. Litvinenko started vomiting, and vomiting again and again. He could not keep any food or drink down. On 03 November he started to complain of pain, and to experience bloody diarrhoea, upon which he was admitted to Barnet Hospital. He spent two weeks there before being transferred to University College Hospital (UCH) on 17 November.

On 16 November preliminary results showed that Litvinenko’s condition should be treated as “suspicious thallium poisoning”; and tests showed that Mr Litvinenko’s bone marrow had degenerated and contained no discernible normal blood forming elements. Further testing confirmed polonium contamination. His condition gradually deteriorated and he died on 23 November 2006.

The question of possible Russian State responsibility for Litvinenko’s death is one of the most important issues arising from his death. It would appear that Litvinenko was alive to the possibility that he had been deliberately poisoned from the first days of his illness. At the first of his police interviews, in the early hours of 18 November, Mr Litvinenko told DI Hyatt that one of three people must have been the poisoner.163 The three men that he named were Mario Scaramella, with whom he had eaten at itsu during the early afternoon of 1 November, and Andrey Lugovy and Dmitri Kovtun, whom he had met later that day in the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel.

Litvinenko felt “wounded professional pride ... He was agonised by the understanding that as a professional he failed. … He was always saying that I can identify my enemy a mile away,… that I am a professional. But this particular case when it comes to his own life he badly failed.” Litvinenko, as a former FSB officer, had warned that; “they might send a person from my past to me, someone who I’d had good relations with… it [was] that person that the threat would come from”. Litvinenko was “embarrassed” that, “exactly this scenario… was turned against him.”

Litvinenko stated: “I have no doubt whatsoever that this was done by the Russian Secret Services. Having knowledge of the system I know that the order about such a killing of a citizen of another country on its territory, especially if it [is] something to do with Great Britain could have been given by only one person.... That person is the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin”.

On 21 November 2006 Litvinenko signed what became known as his deathbed statement. " ... as I lie here I can distinctly hear the beating of wings of the angel of death. I may be able to give him the slip but I have to say my legs do not run as fast as I would like. I think, therefore, that this may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition. You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed. You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilised men and women. 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. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people."

British police accused Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, the two Russian former KGB agents Litvinenko met for tea, of carrying out the killing. They confirmed meeting with Litvinenko in London on several occasions, including at the time of the suspected poisoning, but deny any involvement in his death. Russia has refused to extradite them. Lugovoy has since been given his own television show and became a Russian lawmaker, giving him immunity from prosecution.

On January 21, 2016, Robert Owen, a top British government investigator, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably personally approved the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian spy-turned-dissident who was exiled in Britain after criticizing Putin and accusing him — among other things — of being a pedophile.

Analysts said Britain’s strategic and economic interests will prevent it from doing anything that would further alienate the Putin government. Economic and financial interests are in the way, with Russian investors pouring billions into Britain’s banking and real estate sectors.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 24-04-2017 16:07:44 ZULU