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The Litvinenko affair

The strange tale of the spy who came in from the cold and drank some tea

The second that green tea touched his lips, the ex-Russian spy was dead – killed from the inside out.

BRITAIN RUSSIAN SPY Alexander Litvinenko AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

IT WAS THE first day of November 2006 and Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian man living in London, decided to meet with two of his fellow countrymen for tea.

The 43-year-old, by then a British citizen, had something else in common with Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. All three were or had been Russian agents.

Although he had left behind his past in the FSB (the successor to the KGB), Litvinenko had not left the espionage world. He was in the employment of MI6, Britain’s secret service.

Soon after taking tea with his former colleagues in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Grosvenor Square, Litvinenko took ill. He spent that night vomiting and just two days later he was admitted to a hospital in north London.

There, he told his physicians that he suspected that he had been poisoned. But only some symptoms of radioactivity were present: he was losing his hair rapidly but there was no radiation in his body according to Geiger counter tests.

Police were called and officers from Scotland Yard originally dealt with the unusual case. However, the force’s counter-terrorism unit were soon involved. It’s head Peter Clarke has since said:

A colleague came into my office and explained that – in hospital in north London – was a man telling a quite extraordinary story. He was saying that he was a former member of a Russian intelligence agency and that he believed he’d been poisoned by some of his former colleagues.

Everyone was flummoxed by the case. Why was this man so ill? Why could they not find out what the poison was?

It didn’t take long before the media got wind that he was a victim of – as he described himself – “serious poisoning” and was in “bad shape”. 

About two weeks after first being admitted to hospital he was transferred to University College Hospital for intensive care. His white cell blood count had floored, his bone marrow had failed and his immune system was non-existent. Soon, all of his key organs would be destroyed. 

He was being killed from the inside out.

And nobody could figure out exactly why.

Eventually, some of his blood was sent to a nuclear research facility in Berkshire where experts there figured it out, with a little luck.

Initial tests came back negative for radioactive poison and it looked like it was back to square one for the doctors. However, another scientist in the building had expert knowledge on a substance called polonium-210. That man happened to be beside the pair who were discussing the case.

He had overheard them talking about a tiny, almost negligible spike in the results and he was able to tell them it was a sign of polonium-210 (which was a vital component in early nuclear bombs).

Same end result

It didn’t help Litvinenko though. His medical team now knew what they were dealing with. Which meant they knew there was nothing they could do. Once he put that green tea to his lips on 1 November, he was dead. There was no treatment that could stop the poison working through his body.

On 23 November, with his wife Marina by his side, the father-of-one died.

Poisoned Russian Spy Dies Walter Litvinenko, Alexander's father, speaks to the press the day after his son passed away. PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The case, now a murder investigation, had been receiving a lot of media attention and it had the potential to turn into a national crisis. A British citizen had been killed with a lethal dose of radioactive polonium in a public place.

A co-ordinated political and police strategy was required domestically, without even mentioning the diplomatic headaches to come.

First up: do citizens have to worry about radioactive materials being left around London? There were elements of the poison found all over the city in the days that followed as police retraced the movements of Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun.

The pair first met up in London on 16 October so there was more than two weeks of back-dated surveillance to be done.

BRITAIN POISONED SPY British police officers stand guard beside a forensic tent erected outside the London residence where Litvinenko lived. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The polonium trail included a sushi bar, a Best Western Hotel, a room at the Sheraton, a British Airways aircraft, various restaurants, the Emirates football stadium (where Lugovoi watched Arsenal take on CSKA Moscow), the Tube and the Pine Bar and a bedroom at the Millennium Hotel.

Lugovoi and Kovtun were obvious suspects: one or other of them had been to each of these locations. In the bathroom opposite the business centre in the Millenium, where CCTV footage captured the pair entering, there was heavy contamination of polonium-210 on sinks, a hand-dryer and a cubicle door. According to BBC News:

When Lugovoi and Kovtun’s movements were mapped against the sites of polonium contamination, there was an exact match.

The substance was found in three hotel bedrooms where the pair stayed. In the bathroom sinks’ plugholes of room number 382 in the Millenium and room 107 of the Best Western, there was evidence of extremely high levels of radiation. This was probably because the polonium was poured down the drain.

In the third room – in the Sheraton – the polonium was spilled and mopped up with towels subsequently found in the laundry.

Blame game

While dying in hospital, Litvinenko had also told the BBC and his wife that Russia – and in particular President Vladimir Putin – was responsible for his horrific death. He talked plenty about how he was looking into the shooting of Russian journalist and fellow Kremlin opponent Anna Politkovskaya.

He even released a statement – through his family – after he died.

Poisoned Russian Spy Dies PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Putin and he had an interesting past. Litvinenko joined the KGB in 1988 where he climbed ladders quickly.

During the 1990s, Putin was his commander but they allegedly argued over corruption within the service. Litvinenko wanted to stamp it out and relations quickly soured.

In 1998, he turned and revealed details of an alleged plot to shoot dead Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky.

Litvinenko was arrested but later acquitted of charges of abusing his office (Berezovsky died in 2014 with a coroner unable to decide if he died by suicide or was unlawfully killed).

RUSSIA INTELLIGENCE SERVICE Lt.Vol. Alexander Litvinenko, right, of the Federal Security Service, and a Russian intelligence agent speak at a news conference in Moscow in 1998. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

After nine months in a remand centre, Litvinenko left the service and wrote a book Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within.

In it, he makes very serious accusations that the bombings of apartment blocks in three cities were actually carried out by FSB agents in order to give Russia a ‘reason’ to invade Chechnya (the blasts were blamed on separatists). Three hundred people perished in those attacks.

Once the book was published, Litvinenko had to leave his home country and was granted asylum in the UK.

Putin wasn’t his only enemy but he remained steadfast in his vocal criticism of him, accusing the FSB of training al-Qaeda members involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Just a few months before his death, he had written an online article making even more allegations against the president. He accused him of being a paedophile because of a photo which had emerged of Putin kissing a boy’s stomach.

He was giving the Kremlin more and more motivation to want rid of him.

Russia continued to deny any involvement in the death of their former spy, however. It refused to extradite Lugovoi to the UK after the public prosecutor there said he should be charged with murder.

Russia’s constitution does not allow for the extradition of any of its citizens, something British authorities don’t look kindly on. With a British citizen dead in a hugely-publicised case, a diplomatic stand-off was inevitable.

By the end of July 2007, four Russian and four British diplomats had been thrown out of their respective countries. A truce was briefly called between the security services ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

Both Lugovoi and Kovtun also deny they had anything to do with the deadly poisoning of their former colleague. They have put forward Litvinenko’s new allies in MI6 as possible other suspects.

Last year, Putin awarded Lugovoi with a medal for services to the state.

RUSSIA POISONED SPY Andrei Lugovoi AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The case has rumbled on for years with a coroner ruling in June 2007 that an inquest should be delayed to allow for a public inquiry.

Politics then interfered, with ministers ruling out the option multiple times – until the High Court sided with Marina, Alexander’s wife, and forced them into it.

The judge decided the Home Office was incorrect in ruling out the probe before the outcome of an inquest.

Britain Litvinenko Marina Litvinenko AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The public inquiry – which Marina had fought so hard for – began in January 2015 and ended last July.

Its report landed on Home Secretary Theresa May’s desk this month. It was published on Thursday, with the result that the word ‘probably’ has never been so analysed.

Judge Robert Owen found that there was a “strong probability” the killing was ordered by the FSB and that Vladimir Putin “probably approved” it.

That word “probably” might sound weak to some, but its use here in the context of already-strained diplomatic relations is extremely strong.

Owen heard from 62 witnesses over six months of public hearings and — behind closed doors — saw secret intelligence evidence about Litvinenko and his links to UK spy agencies.

He also used forensic reports, CCTV footage, communications records and a radiation schedule to come to his conclusions.

He definitively named Kovtun and Lugovoi as the spy’s killers but wrote that he saw evidence of State involvement in the crime. He is “sure” that they carried it out on somebody else’s order, the report says.

Furthermore, he believes they were not cognisant of how lethal the chemical they were handing actually was – “what precisely… it was or the nature of all of its properties”.

To highlight this, Owen mentions that Lugovoi asked his eight-year-old son to shake the hand of the man who just drank from the polonium-laced tea in the hotel.

The judge was convinced that the Russian spies lied to various news outlets to which they gave interviews, claiming that they were being framed.

The judge’s words were some comfort to Litvinenko’s widow and her son Anatoly who hugged supporters as they listened at a press conference on Thursday.

Litvinenko inquiry findings PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

“I’m very pleased that the words my husband spoke on his deathbed when he accused Mr Putin of his murder have been proved true in an English court,” she told reporters.

I can’t say it is what I hoped for but I really appreciate it.

Her husband’s words were quite important to the investigation. Owen noted that it was unusual but of “great value” to have Litvinenko’s evidence about his own death.

The response from Russia since the 338-page report was published has been Putin-esque.

The Kremlin labeled the inquiry a “joke”. The president’s spokesperson added, “More likely it can be attributed to fine British humour — the fact that an open public inquiry is based on the classified data of special services, unnamed special services.”

Another minister, Maria Zakharova, said Russia had no reason to expect the findings of the “politically motivated and extremely non-transparent process… would suddenly become objective and unbiased”.

Despite the flippant statements from Moscow, Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Britain was “toughening” up when it comes to Russia.

His Home Secretary Theresa May intends to bring up the conversation when next she sees Putin.

However, the countries will have to ensure some diplomatic cordiality remains given both of their involvements in the Syria crisis.

This will be done with “clear eyes and a very cold heart”, according to a – for now – tough-talking Cameron.

This is an updated version of a story published on 3 July. With reporting by AP

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