The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, appears set to escape sanctions despite being personally blamed over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, with the British Government being accused of a weak response to the damning verdict on Moscow’s complicity in the killing.
Mr Litvinenko, one of Mr Putin’s most outspoken critics, was murdered by two agents who were likely to have been acting with the approval of senior figures within the Russian security service, the FSB, an inquiry found yesterday in a report welcomed by Mr Litvinenko’s family.
David Cameron said that the report had only confirmed what the Government believed – but the Prime Minister stopped short of imposing immediate sanctions against Russia and Mr Putin, whose assistance is required in dealing with the crisis in Syria and tackling the threat from Isis.
Mr Litvinenko’s family called for economic sanctions and a travel ban on the Russian leader, and senior political figures called for stronger action from No 10.
Mr Litvinenko died after he drank green tea laced with polonium 210 at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair, central London, in November 2006. Mr Litvinenko pointed the finger of blame at Mr Putin on his deathbed.
Moscow dismissed the finding that Mr Putin “probably” authorised the dissident’s murder as a gross provocation. The two agents identified as the killers said the report discredited the British justice system.
“There was one goal from the beginning: slander Russia and slander its officials,” said a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zhakarova. “We regret that a purely criminal case has been politicised and has darkened the general atmosphere of our bilateral relations.”
The report by a retired High Court judge, Sir Robert Owen, based in part on secret intelligence reports, went further than expected in attributing blame to the upper echelons of the Russian state.
Sir Robert said there was a “strong circumstantial case” of Russian state involvement but there is no smoking gun in the 328-page report that directly ties Mr Putin to the murder.
However, the report highlighted antagonism between the dead man and the President that dated back to 1998 when Mr Putin was head of the FSB.
From exile in Britain, Mr Litvinenko had launched highly personal attacks on the Russian leader in which he accused him of responsibility for the murder of the campaigning Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, culminating in claims that Mr Putin was a paedophile.
The dissident had also linked the Mr Putin to organised crime and went public on claims of corruption within the FSB, just after Mr Putin had taken over the organisation during his inexorable rise to the presidency.
Sir Robert said that if the head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, had issued an order to kill Mr Litvinenko, he would probably have sought the approval of Mr Putin. “Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me, I find that the FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin,” said Sir Robert.
In response to the report, the Government summoned the Russian ambassador and said that the two men named as killers, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, would have their assets frozen. The report found that Lugovoi – who called the inquiry’s findings “absurd” – could have been planning the attack from as early as 2004.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, told MPs she had written to the Director of Public Prosecutions to ask her to consider further action to extradite the men. “The Government remains committed to pursuing justice in this case,” she said.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos Mr Cameron insisted Britain was “toughening up” its response to Russia. “Do we have to go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis?” he said. “Yes, we do but we do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart.”
Yet Mr Litvinenko’s family said the Government should go further and called for the expulsion of all Russian intelligence officers based in London. “I’m of course 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 with the high standards of independence and fairness,” said his widow, Marina. “But now it is time for David Cameron… I am also calling for the imposition of targeted economic sanctions and travel bans against named individuals including Mr Patrushev and Mr Putin.”
The outcome of the £2.2m inquiry was a personal triumph for Ms Litvinenko following a long battle after the Government had originally blocked it. The decision was reversed amidst a diplomatic crisis over Ukraine and Sir Robert was allowed to hear details in private of intelligence matters that led to Mr Putin being personally linked to the murder.
His findings left the Government with a diplomatic conundrum. The former ambassador to Moscow at the time of the killing, Tony Benton, said there were other “important fish to fry” that needed Russian assistance, including the denuclearisation of Iran and “sorting out the mess in Syria”.
But the Litvinenko family’s barrister, Ben Emmerson QC, said that any failure to take significant action against Russia would be a “craven” response to “nuclear terrorism” on the streets of the capital.
He had claimed that the Kremlin was directly responsible for administering polonium 210, which he said would have cost tens of millions of pounds on the commercial market. Experts told the inquiry that it was most likely to have come from a plant 450 miles from Moscow.
“It would be an abdication of his [Mr Cameron’s] responsibility to do the thing which, after all, is the first function of a state, which is to keep its people safe,” said the barrister.
The shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham said the Government’s diplomatic response did not “go anywhere near enough in answering the seriousness of the findings”.
The Liberal Democrats said they had “serious concerns over what appears to be the Government passing on responsibility for what should be an unwavering response to the Russian state”.