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Anne Penketh: Playing the blame game in Moscow

In any case, he insisted, Russia 'has nothing to do' with the death of Mr Litvinenko

Dmitry Peskov is one of a refreshing new breed of Kremlin spokesmen. The deputy spokesman for President Putin is not ashamed of speaking fluent English, and gives an apparently straight answer to a straight question. The most troubling thing in his office is the spiked wooden mace that looks as though it could be used to crack open the skulls of recalcitrant correspondents. And I must add that, during our 90-minute conversation, I also found myself wondering why he needs 11 telephones on his desk.

I was in the Kremlin last Friday evening because Mr Peskov had agreed to talk about the Litvinenko affair, and the damage wrought by the death of the former FSB intelligence agent on British-Russian relations. He was in fine form, expressing astonishment about the "hysteria" in the British media which he said had universally accused President Putin of killing Alexander Litvinenko. "The British press were writing that about the leader of a state," he fulminated. "This is not journalism," he went on, saying that he might have expected one version to point the finger of blame at Moscow, "but not all the versions".

So what was going on, he wanted to know - was it a revival of Cold War tensions, or were the newspapers trying to increase their circulation? In any case, he insisted, Russia "has nothing to do" with the death of Mr Litvinenko. But that is where I begin to find Mr Peskov less convincing. Because immediately after Mr Litvinenko's death, the Kremlin went into its default mode of denial, even before the investigation could have thrown up any significant clues. Mr Putin, speaking at a summit with European leaders in Helsinki on 24 November, said that the "speculation" that Russian officials might be involved "has nothing to do with reality".

One might understand Mr Putin's scepticism about the authenticity of the deathbed letter in which the former Russian agent accused the president of murder. Furthermore, it does not seem plausible that the Russian president - himself the former head of the FSB - would be so foolish as personally to have given an order to eliminate a middle-ranking defector whose activities were an irritant to the Kremlin.

But how can Mr Peskov be so certain that former KGB officials were not responsible in any way for the poisoning? After all, Mr Litvinenko's ex-colleagues would have had a motive to eliminate a man considered a traitor by his peers, and poison has been the weapon of choice for Russian intelligence services in the past. There is also the context of Mr Litvinenko's death, coming hot on the heels of the assassination in Moscow of the Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, whose murder was being investigated by the former FSB agent.

Has the Kremlin, and the FSB, launched any investigation into the Moscow connection to Mr Litvinenko's death? This suggestion was greeted with derision by the Kremlin spokesman. After all, he said, how do we know that the poisoning was a crime?

"The only thing that is obvious is that you have accepted in Britain, and accepted into British citizenship, a man who used to be an officer of the KGB/FSB. And we know that the ex-KGB agent died at the end in London and we know that presumably radioactive material was found. This is all that we know. The whole logic of this story actually makes it impossible to blame Russia."

So that's the Kremlin version. Needless to say, there are other versions floating around in Moscow's liberal circles, which focus on the timing of Mr Litvinenko's death amid an intensification of the power struggle inside the Kremlin before the 2008 presidential elections.

Some political commentators in Russia say that Mr Litvinenko was the victim of people intent on blowing up western relations with the Kremlin, and damaging Mr Putin before 2008 when he is to stand down as president. Those who stand to gain from Litvinenko's death, so the version goes, are the hardliners in the Putin administration with links to the FSB.

But whatever the truth, the Kremlin must allow British detectives to follow the trail wherever it leads. Russian authorities say they are offering co-operation. This must happen to the satisfaction of Britain, which has seen its restaurants and hotels closed by a health scare of an unprecedented nature.

Transparency has never been one of the hallmarks of Russian government. And maybe Russia, buoyed by its swollen energy revenues, doesn't care about a downturn in its relations with the rest of the world. But Mr Litvinenko's death could provide an opportunity for the Kremlin to demonstrate that it actually does care about the rule of law.