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Berezovski/Litvinenko Connection/Articles
Berezovski/Litvinenko Connection/Articles

Alexander Litvinenko

Security agent sucked into a world of Russian power games and oligarchs

  • The Guardian,

  • Alexander Litvinenko, who has died in a London hospital aged 43 from a mysterious illness, was a career security services officer who got sucked into the dark underworld of Russian politics.

    Born in Voronezh, south-west Russia, he joined the army out of school, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Then, in the dying days of the Soviet Union in 1988, he entered the counter-intelligence department of the KGB.

    In 1991, once the KGB's directorates had split up, he worked for the federal security service (FSB), fighting terrorism and organised crime, sometimes operating in Chechnya. In 1997 he moved to one of the most secret divisions of the service, a unit called URPO investigating "organised criminal formations".

    At this time, a former mathematician turned businessman called Boris Berezovsky was making his fortune car dealing and picking up chunks of state companies in dubious privatisation deals. Shrewd, manipulative and charged with boundless energy, Berezovsky soon inveigled his way into the Kremlin, becoming a power behind the throne in the later years of the Yeltsin presidency.

    As Yeltsin's health and popularity waned, Berezovsky, one of the first tycoons to be called an oligarch because of his political heft, needed allies to protect his position as rivals closed in on his business holdings. He fell in with Litvinenko, who had earlier investigated a car bomb attack in which Berezovsky narrowly escaped.

    Then, in 1998, Litvinenko called a press conference, claiming that a year earlier he had been instructed to kill Berezovsky by then deputy head of the Russian security council. Flanked by other members of his FSB unit, one in a black balaclava, Litvinenko said his superiors had threatened him with violence when he refused their order to "kill the Jew who'd robbed half the country".

    The truth of the accusation would remain disputed. Critics said it was fabricated to help Berezovsky blacken enemies in the FSB. Litvinenko claimed it was just one manifestation of the corruption and violence inside the FSB that he wanted to expose.

    He was arrested the following March and imprisoned in the FSB prison at Lefortovo in Moscow on charges of exceeding his authority at work. He was acquitted in November 1999 but re-arrested before the charges were again dismissed in 2000. A third criminal case began but Litvinenko secretly left the country, ending up in London with his wife Marina, and was granted political asylum. In 2002 he was convicted in his absence in Russia and handed a three and a half year jail sentence.

    In Britain, Litvinenko was reunited with Berezovsky, now too living in self-imposed exile. Litvinenko wrote two books, the first, The FSB Blows up Russia (2001), implicated the security services in a series of apartment block bombings in 1999 that killed more than 300 people. The attacks were blamed on Chechen rebels, but his book echoed fears of state involvement as a means of justifying the second war in Chechnya. The other was The Criminal Group from the Lubyanka (2002). However, other accusations, such as that FSB agents trained al-Qaida operatives in Dagestan and were involved in the September 11 attacks, did little for his credibility.

    Before his death he was said to be investigating last month's assassination in Moscow of his acquaintance, the investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya (obituary, October 9).

    What is certain is that Litvinenko will remain a disputed figure; to some a courageous defector and whistleblower, to others a traitor and oligarch's sidekick.

    He is survived by Marina and their son, Anatoli.

    · Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko, security service officer, born 1962; died November 23 2006



WikiLeaks cables: Russia 'was tracking killers of Alexander Litvinenko but UK warned it off'

Claim that British intelligence was incompetent will deepen diplomatic row sparked by move to deport MP's Russian researcher

  • Former Russian Agent Poisoned In London
    Alexander Litvinenko, in intensive care shortly before his death from poisoning at University College Hospital, London, in 2006. Photograph: Natasja Weitsz/Getty Images

    Russia was tracking the assassins of dissident spy Alexander Litvinenko before he was poisoned but was warned off by Britain, which said the situation was "under control", according to claims made in a leaked US diplomatic cable.

    The secret memo, recording a 2006 meeting between an ex-CIA bureau chief and a former KGB officer, is set to reignite the diplomatic row surrounding Litvinenko's unsolved murder that year, which many espionage experts have linked directly to the Kremlin.

    The latest WikiLeaks release comes after relations between Moscow and London soured as a result of Britain's decision to expel a Russian parliamentary researcher suspected of being a spy.

    The memo, written by staff at the US embassy in Paris, records "an amicable 7 December dinner meeting with ambassador-at-large Henry Crumpton [and] Russian special presidential representative Anatoliy Safonov", two weeks after Litvinenko's death from polonium poisoning had triggered an international hunt for his killers.

    During the dinner, Crumpton, who ran the CIA's Afghanistan operations before becoming the US ambassador for counter-terrorism, and Safonov, an ex-KGB colonel-general, discussed ways the two countries could work together to tackle terrorism. The memo records that "Safonov opened the meeting by expressing his appreciation for US/Russian co-operative efforts thus far. He cited the recent events in London – specifically the murder of a former Russian spy by exposure to radioactive agents – as evidence of how great the threat remained and how much more there was to do on the co-operative front."

    The memo contains an observation from US embassy officials that Safonov's comments suggested Russia "was not involved in the killing, although Safonov did not offer any further explanation".

    Later the memo records that Safonov claimed that "Russian authorities in London had known about and followed individuals moving radioactive substances into the city but were told by the British that they were under control before the poisoning took place".

    The claim will be rejected in many quarters as a clumsy attempt by Moscow to deflect accusations that its agents were involved in the assassination.

    Russia says it had nothing to do with the murder, but espionage experts claim the killing would not have been possible without Kremlin backing. Shortly before he died, Litvinenko said he had met two former KGB agents, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, on the day he fell ill. Both men deny wrongdoing, but Britain has made a formal request for Lugovoi's extradition following a recommendation by the director of public prosecutions.

    New evidence linking Russia with the death of Litvinenko was recently produced by his widow, Marina, who procured documents allegedly showing the FSB security service seized a container of polonium in the weeks before the poisoning. Moscow disputes the claims.

    The allegation that British authorities were monitoring the assassins' progress through London is likely to raise questions about whether Litvinenko was warned his life may have been at risk in the days before he was murdered.

    Several people familiar with the affair said they thought Safonov's claims implausible, with one saying he had never heard it aired within London intelligence circles before. Nevertheless Safonov's remarks – in effect questioning the competence of Britain's security services – will do little to heal the relationship between London and Moscow.

    The claims come after Britain announced that Katia Zatuliveter, a 25-year-old Russian working for the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock, is to be deported amid suspicions she was spying for the Kremlin, a charge she plans to contest.

    Alexander Sternik, chargé d'affaires at Russia's embassy in London, hinted that the deportation could trigger tit-for-tat expulsions and denounced the move as a "PR stunt" designed to mask Britain's own problems. "These problems are many over the last couple of months," Sternik said. "You can cite the unflattering leaks from WikiLeaks and [England's] unsuccessful [World Cup] bid."

    The Paris embassy memo also shines new light on relations between Washington and Moscow. Henry Crumpton reportedly gained almost mythical status after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He has been identified in the US media as a CIA agent quoted in the 11 September commission report as unsuccessfully pressing the agency to do more in Afghanistan to combat Osama bin Laden.

    Safonov was once tipped to take the top job at the federal security service after the then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, dismissed its incumbent.