The murder of the former FSB agent A. Litvinenko is a heinous crime. The substance used – Polonium 210 –, causing a slow and painful death, indicates that the perpetrators were vying for utmost public attention. Otherwise Litvinenko could have simply been gunned down by contract killers. In addition, the murderers deliberately left a trail implicating a direct Russian involvement, particularly the traces of Polonium found in planes used for Russian destinations. Furthermore, these many places with Polonium contamination are meant to disguise the professionalism of the perpetrators; the murderes had every interest to leave the impression of highly unprofessional killers, unable to handle the deadly substance. This allows to presume, that the murderers had great interest in damaging the reputation of those Russian circles perceived as the masterminds of this plot by both Western elites and public opinion.
Basically there are three main explanations (and one rather remote) for the flagrant killing of A. Litivinenko. The first one relates this crime to President Putin personally. This is the least likely explanation, as the murder seriously tarnishes the image of Putin; the anti-Putin hysteria in the West is already utterly stong. Putin does not obtain any relevant gain by this murder; it has the potential of making him a pariah among statesmen and it may complicate his most important current objectives: the ratification of Russian WTO accession by the US congress and the initiation of a new legal co-operation framework with the EU. Besides, the murder of a second-rank security agent would maybe have made sense in 2002, when he publicly accused Russian FSB units (even Putin himself) of having bombed its own people for the sake of proliferating a pretext for the military onslaught on Chechnya. Now, given Litvinenkos limited relevance, his murder is totally unreasonable for Putin.
The second more likely explanation is that a rogue unit of the Russian domestic security service FSB is responsible for the killing. Former colleagues of Litvinenko could have taken revenge for his defection and/or wanted to kill him because he may have obtained compromising material on the FSB regading the 1999 apartment bombings and/or the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. This raises serious concerns about Putin’s ability to keep full control of the Russian security services. The very means used to execute Litvinenko, however, undermines the likelihood of this explanation.
Another motive could be domestic considerations, as various factions of the FSB have different intentions regarding the Russian election cycle in 2007 and 2008. This may well be related to the issue of the Putin succession in 2008. Circles around crown prince D. Medvedev could well be trying to discredit security services linked to his main rival for the Russian Presidency in 2008 – Defence minister S.Ivanov. These people aim to force Putin – with his reputation utterly tarnished – to reign in on the security services and weaken them decisively.
Another goal of a rogue FSB unit could be the radical destabilization of Russia from within. This unit might well have contacts to a camp within the Presidential Administration. The ultimate goal of this group was to create a situation forcing Putin to declare a state of emergency, which could lay the foundations for an extension of Putin’s presidency, the suspension of presidential elections or the constitutional changes required for a third consecutive term for Putin. Anyway, the more Putin’s reputation abroad is damaged the more he might be inclined to promote constitutional change to remain in office, since he does no longer need to take world opinion into account. In addition, further pressure on Putin to remain in office and stay the course could be alleged compromising material held by the agencies.
The third explanation, no less likely than the second one, is that Litvinenko’s patron Boris Berezovsky may have ordered his killing. Berezovsky’s principal aim is to harm Putin’s image; he has done so since being forced into exile in 2000. Berezovsky may even have access to Polonium, as he still maintains excellent relations with the security service of the Russian General staff GRU. Berezovsky may have thus even murdered one of his associates, in order to wreck Putin’s reputation. Rumours related to this consider it possible, that Litvinenko was involved in building a dirty bomb to be transferred to terrorist Chechen units – to which Berezeovsky allegedly has had close contacts for years – and accidentally poisoned himself. This, however, is utterly unlikely.
It is highly likely that we will see further events harming Putin’s reputation – further killings, poisonings, maybe even some staged low-scale terrorist attacks. As of today, it is unknown whether former acting Prime Minister Gaydar has been a poisoning victim as well. It is to be considered as highly unlikely though.
Putin may however seek to withstand the pressure and turn against the security services, weaken their influence and promote the liberal camp within his administration. The most likely steps taken by Putin in this scenario would be the dismissal of the Fradkov government and the appointment of Dmitry Medvedyev as the new head of government. Within the presidential administration one could expect the demotion of the two main FSB representatives Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov.
Finally, there is a remote possibility of Western security services being involved in the poisoning effort. There are circles in some countries who do have a multiple interest in discrediting Russia and her leadership.
If it were true, however, that the series of killings was the result of clashes within the Putin camp, Russian politics will become highly unstable. EU’s and US relations with Russia should therefore prepare for highly conflictual and hardly calculable times.
Further concern causes the fact of the contamination of people that had contact with Litvinenko after his presumed poisoning. The news that the Italian contact-man Scaramella has also been exposed to and affected by the toxic substance causes unease; it is also unknown as of today if the two Russians – Andrey Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun – who had met Litvinenko on November 1st, have been contaminated as well. Allegations Scaramella might have exposed Litvinenko to Polonium makes the whole crime even more mysterious and raises concerns about low-yield nuclear terrorism. This murder may well be among the first terrorist attacks involving radioactive material. This in itself makes it a remarkable event.
This blog comment was published exclusively on December 4th, 2006 on Russia Profile.org under the title: ‘Conspiring to Theorize. Three Explanations for the Murder of Alexander Litvinenko.‘