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The Litvinenko File
The Life and Death of a Russian Spy
By Martin Sixsmith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Martin Sixsmith
All rights reserved.
A FUNERAL IN LONDON
The afternoon was tinged with the unreal. Riding the Underground to London's Highgate Cemetery, I caught myself reliving Russian funerals from my past. Andrei Sakharov's emotional leave-taking in 1989, when weeping thousands lined the streets of Moscow; the murdered Russian mafiosnik whose burial party I saw decimated by a graveside bomb ... severed limbs on the cemetery path, a shin and foot in the branches of a tree, the foot still sheathed in one expensive loafer.
I shook myself. This was December 2006; north London on a drizzly Thursday. What could the funeral of an exiled former KGB man offer that I hadn't seen before? Highgate Cemetery was drenched in dark December rain. The funeral procession straggled through the puddles of a tree-lined avenue, an outsized coffin perched precariously on the shoulders of eleven ill-matched pall- bearers. So here he was. Encased in lead, wrapped in oak, adorned with gleaming brass. More resplendent in death than ever he was in life, here was Sasha Litvinenko, the boy from the deep Russian provinces who rose through the ranks of the world's most feared security service; the man who alleged murder and corruption in the Russian government, fled from the wrath of the Kremlin, came to London and took the shilling of Moscow's avowed enemy. Now he was a martyr, condemned by foes unknown to an agonizing death in a hospital bed many miles from home; now he would lie in foreign soil, in an airtight casket to preserve his body for a thousand years. A hundred yards away, the grey granite statue of Karl Marx rose above the grave of the father of world revolution.
* * *
Sasha's coffin was heavy; Boris Berezovsky couldn't hide his relief as the weight was lifted from his back. In the greenery and the fresh air Berezovsky seemed somehow diminished, subdued, not his usual combative self. It came to me that all the times I had met Berezovsky it was always inside, away from the light – under the fluorescent strips of his claustrophobic Down Street office or at the shielded corner table of the Al Hamra restaurant with his bodyguards surrounding us, watching all the doors at once.
Now there was something odd. Why was Berezovsky not exploiting the moment? Ever since I had known him, he had seized every opportunity to blacken the hated name of Vladimir Putin. In the late 1990s Berezovsky had been Russia's richest and most powerful man. He had established such a financial and political stranglehold over the weak Boris Yeltsin that he had virtually run the country. But Putin had dethroned him, stripped him of his power and much of his wealth. In a boiling fury Berezovsky had fled to London and appeared to have devoted his life to an obsessive quest for revenge. Sasha Litvinenko was Berezovsky's lieutenant in a bitter propaganda campaign against Putin and his regime. But now, as the world reviled Putin as the hidden hand behind Sasha's murder, Berezovsky was retreating into his shell. I wondered what he had on his mind as he watched the coffin poised over the open grave. Why did the leader and financier of the anti-Kremlin opposition seem so preoccupied?
Sasha's father, Walter Litvinenko, was talking, his face etched with the uncomprehending pain of an old man contemplating the brutal death of a son. As he spoke, his pain turned to anger. 'My son was killed,' he said. 'Killed by those who had every reason to fear what he knew. To fear the truth he told. They wanted to silence him in the cruellest fashion.'
There was nothing suspect about Walter Litvinenko's grief. His was a human personal tragedy. But what of the men he blamed for it? What about Putin, the president who gave his security services the legal right to assassinate political enemies on Russian soil or abroad? What about Sasha's former colleagues in the KGB – now renamed the Federal Security Service or FSB? As the mourners filed past, I picked out some unknown faces among the familiar crowd of exiled oligarchs and their acolytes – one unknown man in a leather jacket, another smoking a cigarette despite the solemnity of the occasion. Who were they? Sasha's friends from far away? Kremlin envoys sent to gather intelligence on its enemies abroad?
Akhmed Zakayev, a powerful member of the Berezovsky camp with sad southern eyes in a face etched by the grief of his nation, nodded to a man with a beard and Islamic skullcap. The imam intoned a Muslim prayer and Zakayev made the ritual motion of washing his face with both hands. Another odd moment this, in an increasingly puzzling day. I had first met Akhmed Zakayev in 2003, when he was campaigning to avoid extradition from Britain to Russia. As Chechen foreign minister, he had angered the Kremlin by wooing the foreign media with tales of Russian atrocities in his homeland; Putin in return accused him of terrorist crimes. A PR campaign led by Tim Bell and Vanessa Redgrave swayed the British press and – just as it had done with Zakayev's protector Berezovsky – the High Court rejected the extradition request. Zakayev got the right to stay in Britain, in a London that disaffected Russians have made the headquarters of anti-Putin opposition.
He and Berezovsky persuaded Sasha Litvinenko to settle in London with them. They found him a house next door to Zakayev, gave publicity to his accusations of FSB villainy and offered him protection – how ironic that now seemed – against the avenging agents of his enemies. In return, Litvinenko told the world that President Putin had plotted to murder Berezovsky; that Putin had conspired with the FSB to blow up Moscow apartment blocks and blame the attacks on Chechen separatists to justify the second invasion of Chechnya. Over time, Sasha's allegations had grown increasingly outrageous, including claims that Putin had regular sexual relations with young boys – all, in retrospect, potential motives for a murder.
Litvinenko's former wife, his widow and three orphans stood in silence as the Muslim prayers droned on. His widow, Marina, still living in the suburban London house Berezovsky had bought for them, was unhappy with the Islamic element. She disputed the account of Sasha's alleged deathbed conversion and had wanted a non-denominational service. But families must come second to the demands of the political struggle, and Marina kept quiet. What were her feelings as she walked over to embrace Zakayev after the service? Was she acknowledging that her husband's life and tortured death had been a necessary sacrifice, a martyrdom in the covert war between the Kremlin and its political opponents?
It is a war that has blown hot and cold since hostilities were declared in 2000 and has pitted some of Russia's strongest, richest men against the most powerful president since Josef Stalin. But a war it most certainly is; a war in which each side accuses the other of the darkest acts, where claims and counter claims are made, sometimes without the slightest basis in fact, and the hand of Putin or Berezovsky is seen behind every evil.CHAPTER 2
EMISSARIES FROM RUSSIA
It was hard to imagine that five weeks earlier, at the beginning of November, the world had never heard of Alexander Litvinenko, or Sasha as he was known to his friends. As an old Russia hand and an habitue of Russian exile circles in London, I knew who he was and that he was closely associated with the kingpin of the exiles, Boris Berezovsky. I had had dealings with Berezovsky over the years.
Sasha Litvinenko was both a complex and a very simple man. Those who knew him well speak unfailingly of his naivety and an unrelenting stubbornness which made many regard him as an obsessive. His widow Marina describes him as boyish and emotional, but she says he had ruthlessness in him too. He was no angel. Even his closest friends say he probably had the blood of more than one victim on his hands. But they were victims he dispatched while carrying out his duty. And duty was important to Litvinenko; his constant refrain to those who would listen was that he had always behaved loyally and honestly. He spent his youth and most of his adult career being loyal to the authorities in his country, whoever they were: first to the communists, then to Boris Yeltsin's reformers, and then to the hardline autocracy imposed by Vladimir Putin, Sasha's former boss at the FSB. But in the course of a few turbulent weeks in 1998 he was transformed from a Putin ultra-loyalist to an acrimonious, diehard foe. As we will discover, Litvinenko challenged Vladimir Putin in the most bizarre circumstances; Putin rebuffed him, and Sasha felt slighted. His hurt – and his obsessive nature -meant he would not sue for peace, even when his comrades in arms were doing so. He threw in his lot with the Kremlin's public enemy number one, Boris Berezovsky. When Berezovsky fled to England in 2000, he fled with him. Since then Litvinenko had been venting his bile on Putin, hurling ever more outrageous accusations and insults at the man he used to speak of as his own role model, the man he once idolized with an intensity bordering on love. From London he had directed increasingly bitter polemics at his former colleagues in the FSB. He had become involved in murky business dealings, with dark suggestions of blackmail plots. And he had exasperated and finally fallen out with Berezovsky himself. Many had a motive for murder. In the end, someone's patience snapped.
The aim of this book is to discover who that someone was. Who had the motive, and the means, to carry out a murder that was for all intents and purposes the world's first act of international nuclear terrorism? This account will examine the movements and actions of a key group of players, both friends and suspects. It will weigh, and ultimately pronounce on, their guilt or their innocence. And it will look beyond the hired hands and killers to those who gave the orders. The truth behind the Litvinenko story lies in the dubious and colourful past of the man himself, the battles he fought and the enemies he made; it lies in the years of social and political upheaval which have shaped today's Russia and brought the current regime to power; it lies in the murky economic and business conflicts, the vested interests and the corruption of the body politic, which have divided a great nation into warring camps. All this has forced men like Sasha Litvinenko to take sides in a confrontation where they are the expendable pawns of ruthless masters. When pawns threaten -or when they lose their usefulness – they can easily be sacrificed ...
* * *
Back on 1 November 2006 neither I nor anyone except a small, secretive group of conspirators had any idea that the fate of this fugitive from the Russian secret services was about to change the face of international politics and strain relations between Russia and the West.
That evening, I was invited to the Emirates soccer stadium in north London to see the London team Arsenal play the Russian champions CSKA Moscow. It was an important game, with both sides seeking a victory that would guarantee their safe passage to the knockout stages of the prestigious and lucrative European Champions League. Two weeks earlier, Arsenal had lost 1-0 in Moscow and they were out for revenge. Other people in the crowd that evening may have had revenge on their minds too. Within weeks, some of them were to become the focus of attention in one of the most spectacular murder inquiries the world of international espionage has ever witnessed.
The new 60,000-seat stadium was filling up with expectant Arsenal fans in red and white shirts and scarves, their chants rolling noisily round the banks of spectators. In one corner of the ground, less garishly clad and very much quieter, a small throng of visiting Russian supporters struggled to make their voices heard. In the Soviet era there had been no tradition of fans chanting or singing at Russian soccer matches; the stadiums were largely quiet and respectful.
The CSKA fans there that night belonged to the small minority of Russians who had the financial means to pay for a trip to London. Some came for the soccer; some for the bright lights and shopping; some perhaps for less innocent purposes.
Dmitry Kovtun, a burly, rather handsome man in his early forties, had flown into London that morning from Hamburg on the 6.40 a.m. Germanwings flight, a low-cost subsidiary of the German airline Lufthansa, but there was nothing low-cost about his accommodation plans. Kovtun travelled from London's Gatwick Airport directly to the swanky Mayfair district in the city centre and checked in at the Millennium Hotel, where rooms start at £170 ($330) plus tax. The Millennium Mayfair is a converted eighteenth-century mansion on the same leafy square as the US embassy, not far from Hyde Park. In the light of the events that were to unfold that day, the leaflet Dmitry Kovtun picked up from the check-in desk, describing the hotel as a 'welcoming, peaceful haven in the heart of London', now has an air of some poignancy about it.
Waiting for him at the hotel on the morning of 1 November was an old friend and colleague, Andrei Lugovoy. With the same muscular build and close-cropped grey hair as Kovtun, Lugovoy wore a look of professional wariness, his eyes sharp and mistrustful, darting constantly to and fro. He had flown to London from Moscow the previous evening, with his wife, two daughters and young son in tow, but he immediately told his wife he would be tied up with business matters for the whole of the day – she should occupy herself with the shops of Oxford Street and the galleries of nearby Bond Street. Kovtun, recently estranged from his German wife of eleven years, had no such problems.
The two men's greeting in the hotel foyer that morning was a brief, manly hug in the Russian manner. They seemed to understand each other almost instinctively, an easy sense of partnership and common purpose built on the experience of many years working together in frequently hazardous situations. They had known one another since childhood days; they had grown up in the same neighbourhood, in the same apartment block, and trained together at the elite Soviet Military Command Academy in Moscow in the mid-1980s. Kovtun and Lugovoy came from military backgrounds -their grandfathers had distinguished war records; their fathers served together in the Defence Ministry – so as teenagers in 1983 they had had little trouble getting into the academy. Its students were regarded as the chosen few, marked out for powerful careers and nicknamed the 'Kremlin cadets'. Both had excelled at their studies and training. When scouts from the security services came to the academy looking for promising recruits, Kovtun and Lugovoy were selected. Kovtun graduated in 1986, Lugovoy in 1987, and both went straight into the Kremlin Regiment of the KGB's Ninth Directorate, charged with the protection of senior state officials in the government and party.
There was a third soccer fan at breakfast at the Millennium Hotel that November morning. His name was Vyacheslav Sokolenko, in his late thirties, three years younger than the other two, but also a graduate of the Moscow military academy and acquainted with Kovtun and Lugovoy for many years. Like them, he too had joined the KGB's Ninth Directorate and the three had served together until they all officially left the service in 1996. Afterwards, like so many former KGB agents, they had gone into the security business.
For three men looking forward to a night out at a big sporting event, the talk over the fried eggs, sausages and black tea was surprisingly restrained. Although the hotel staff serving breakfast in the plush, white-napkinned dining room were unable to make out the subject of the low, almost whispered Russian conversation, it is now clear that it centred largely on another Russian man who had been living in the British capital for exactly six years and whom Lugovoy – although not Kovtun and Sokolenko – had known for at least a decade. The man in question was Alexander Litvinenko.CHAPTER 3
THE INVESTIGATION BUSINESS
Because forensic examinations later determined that Alexander Litvinenko was almost certainly poisoned some time on 1 November 2006, the movements and actions of several people on that day became of considerable interest to the British police investigating his death. At one of the meetings he had that Wednesday, someone persuaded Litvinenko to eat or drink a quantity of polonium many times the amount required to kill him. To understand how he died I set out to retrace his steps, and from sources close to the events in question I have constructed a detailed picture of who did what and who went where. The names of Boris Berezovsky and a mysterious Italian wheeler-dealer, Mario Scaramella, will figure prominently, together with those Russians already named, and there is at times some conflict between the various versions of events. Some of the discrepancies may be the result of deliberate misinformation by some of the parties involved, and resolving them is crucial for the establishment of guilt and innocence in the crime that was committed.
Excerpted from The Litvinenko File by Martin Sixsmith. Copyright © 2007 Martin Sixsmith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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