Litvinenko inquiry: Russia labels findings of murdered agent a 'farce' and 'politically motivated'

‘We regret that a purely criminal case has been politicised and has darkened bilateral relations...’

In the cold snow-covered city, preoccupied by the crash of the Russian rouble, Muscovites were unmoved. Probably. The series of bombshells contained within the 134,503 words of The Litvinenko Inquiry were given short shrift. More attention was paid to the plummeting price of oil and the country’s currency. The claimed state killing of a dissenter failed to illicit much outrage. There were no protests and few willing to criticise the Kremlin. 

The organs of the Russian state seized on a single word used 34 times within Sir Robert Owen’s report – “vozmozhno” (probably). The contempt was ill disguised. The allegation that President Vladimir Putin personally authorised the murder in London described as a “farce” and “politically motivated”.

Soon after the report’s publication, the unflappable spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, appeared in a video posted on Russia’s state news website, Sputnik, where she criticised its “lack of transparency”.

“We regret that a purely criminal case has been politicised and has darkened the general atmosphere of our bilateral relations,” Ms Zakharova said. “Taking this into account, there were little grounds to expect that the final report of a process that was politically motivated and highly opaque, and prepared with a pre-determined ‘correct’ result in mind, would suddenly turn out to be objective and balanced.” Later, Mr Putin’s ever-loyal mouthpiece, Dmitry Peskov, said that the investigation was “the product of the elegant sense of British humour”, and accused the inquiry, which heard some evidence in closed hearings, of resting on “undisclosed information from unnamed intelligence services and the ample use of the words ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’.”

Mr Peskov’s was a line followed doggedly by Russian state media. The popular state news channel NTV aired a news segment entitled “Probably and Possibly”, taking aim at some of the evidence gathered in the investigation. “And here we have the word ‘possibly’, which we meet several times in the document,” the presenter said. “It turns out that, nine years after the inquiry into the cause of the murder began, they say the word ‘possibly’ with considerable uncertainty.”

Nevertheless, scepticism over Russia’s official response has reverberated among Russia’s liberal elite, who fear that the allegations will be ignored by Mr Putin’s administration. Speaking to The Independent, special correspondent for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Pavel Kanygin, called the accusations “very serious” and expressed concern that the Russian government will dismiss the report completely. “Of course, we can’t say 100 per cent that the results are absolutely correct, but I think a lot of serious work was done by the British courts and at the very least Russia has to pay attention to it. 

“I’m worried that a proper investigation on the Russian side into [those involved] in the case won’t be carried out,” Mr Kanygin said.

Alexandra Cherkasova, a researcher at a risk analysis firm in Moscow, agreed with the findings and said the public should be prepared to face a Russian media intent on discrediting the investigation. “I’m just happy that after 10 years, there are finally some tangible conclusions. For me, these results just confirm all the suspicions I’ve had since 2006,” she said. “But as I see it, unless Putin and [Andrei] Lugovoi and the rest of them come out and confess to what they’ve done, I don’t know where we can practically go from here.”  

Mr Lugovoi, who became a politician in a right-wing political party after leaving the Russian secret service, has dismissed the allegations leveled against him as “absurd”. He told Russian news agency Interfax that it is evidence of “London’s anti-Russian position… and a lack of desire among the British to find the real reason for the death of Litvinenko”.

Toxic past: A poisonous legacy

The Litvinenko Inquiry heard that Russia had a history of poisoning opponents. 

Ukraine’s former President, Viktor Yuschenko, was suspected to have been a target of Russian security forces, according to a report for the inquiry by Robert Service, a former professor of Russian history at Oxford University.

Mr Yuschenko’s poisoning occurred in 2004 during his presidential election campaign in which he was running as the anti-Moscow candidate. Tests later suggested he was poisoned by a substance that could only have been created in a laboratory.

Yuri Shchekochikhun – deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta – died in 2003 after showing similar symptoms of dioxin poisoning to that of Mr Yuschenko. The journalist Anna Politkovskaya, from the same campaigning newspaper, nearly died the following year from poisoning, two years before she was shot dead in Moscow.

They had both written about abuses in the Russian armed forces and against the wars in Chechnya. Professor Service said Politkovskaya’s poisoner was not discovered, but speculation centred on the role of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov – a Putin placeman – who was angered by the exposure of human rights abuses in his republic.

In the same year, 2004, an Islamist guerrilla leader was killed by a poisoned letter and a Russian political fixer, Roman Tsepov, also died from suspected radioactive poisoning, according to the report.

Paul Peachey