Spy and Spy: Where Litvinenko and Skripal Diverge


world
 Spy and Spy: Where Litvinenko and Skripal Diverge

Marina Litvinenko in London in 2016. “The lessons from my husbands death have not been properly learned,” she said on Tuesday.

LONDON — Both men hailed from the dark, bare-knuckles world of Russian intelligence. Both fell prey, in varying degrees, to toxins — a long-favored tool of the Kremlins assassins.

The destinies of Alexander V. Litvinenko, poisoned to death in 2006 by radioactive Polonium 210, and Sergei V. Skripal, listed Monday as critically and thus far inexplicably ill in a British hospital, carry similarities that cannot be ignored. For Moscows enemies, the two mens fates offer proof, if any were needed, that the long arm of Russias retribution will not be diverted.

Coming against a background of mistrust between Russia and the West — and in the absence of any definitive indication of why Mr. Skripal and his daughter were hospitalized — it is easy for the Kremlins foes to coax conspiracies from such fertile loam.

But stories of the two former spies soon begin to diverge.

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Mr. Litvinenko, a former colonel in the F.S.B., the domestic successor to the Soviet-era K.G.B., fled Russia clandestinely via Georgia and Turkey in 2000 to seek asylum in Britain, where he made no secret of his revulsion for the leader of the country he had left behind.

He was a whistle-blower who assailed President Vladimir V. Putin in public, accusing him of running a gangster state. Mr. Litvinenko moved in a circle of exiled dissidents clustered around Boris A. Berezovsky, a fugitive oligarch who tilted against Mr. Putin from London and who was found hanged in 2013 under circumstances that were never categorically explained.

That was in stark contrast to Mr. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer in Russia, who arrived in Britain in 2010 as part of a spy swap and lived quietly in an English cathedral town.

“This guy is not a big critic,” Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the whistle-blower, said of Mr. Skripal, speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location outside London. “Everyone says he kept a low profile.”

And while Russias likely involvement in the death of Mr. Litvinenko was documented in a long-running British inquiry, the illness that struck Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, remains mysterious.

The British inquiry concluded two years ago that an operation by the F.S.B. to kill Mr. Litvinenko, 43, by poisoning him with polonium slipped into his tea in an upscale London hotel, “was probably approved” by President Putin.

Yet Britain took relatively modest countermeasures, and the two men accused of the killing, Andrei K. Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, remain at large in Russia despite British demands for their extradition.

“If it was poison, it would mean people are still not protected,” Ms. Litvinenko said, referring Mr. Skripals case. “Its a very bad message for other people. The lessons from my husbands death have not been properly learned.”

Alexander V. Litvinenko at a London hospital, days before his death in 2006. A British inquiry concluded that his poisoning “was probably approved” by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Bill Browder, a wealthy American fund manager clamoring for justice on behalf of his lawyer, Sergei L. Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison in 2009, told the Press Association news agency that “the first operating assumption” of the Skripal case should be “that this was an assassination attempt by the Kremlin against a traitor of Russia.”

That is not improbable. The latest episode fits a broader pattern of mysterious illnesses — sometimes deaths — among Russians seen as enemies of the Kremlin who are living in Britain, where the presence of wealthy, high-rolling Russians has given London one of its newer nicknames: Londongrad.

Mr. Skripal, 66, was arrested in 2004 for selling Russian secrets to British intelligence officers, possibly including the identities of Russian spies in Europe. Even after he retired from active duty in 1999, according to British news reports, he continued to tease out salable information from former colleagues.

The chronology suggests that Mr. Skripal was spying against the F.S.B. at precisely the moment that Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer on his rise to supreme power, headed the organization. Treachery was not something he tolerated.

“Im sure Putin regards him as a traitor,” said Tony Brenton, the British ambassador in Moscow from 2004 to 2008 — a period of rapidly deteriorating relations that some compared to the Cold War.

But, Mr. Brenton added in an interview, “the evidence isnt there yet” about why Mr. Skripal fell ill. Investigators in the Litvinenko case discovered shortly before he died that polonium had been used, Mr. Brenton said, noting that if Mr. Litvinenko had passed away earlier, “they would never have found it.” The killers in that case, he added, “could have gotten away with it.”

Mr. Skripal, once a colonel in Russias military intelligence service, the G.R.U., was arrested in 2004 and jailed in 2006, accused of selling the Kremlins secrets to Britains MI6 overseas intelligence service over a 10-year period in return for $100,000 paid into a bank account in Spain. Mr. Litvinenkos widow said that he, too, had received a stipend from MI6, but only after the family moved to London in 2000.

The authorities have rarely moved swiftly to follow suggestions that the Kremlin is actively pursuing a policy of reprisals against adversaries beyond its own borders. In 2012, for instance, Alexander Perepilichnyy, a whistle-blower financier, died near his home outside London. An inquiry by his life insurance company found traces of a rare and toxic plant extract — gelsemium — in his stomach, but the British police have insisted that there was nothing suspicious.

“British law enforcement doesnt have a lot of credibility when it comes to poisoned Russians in the U.K. after the complete failure of finding out what happened to Perepilichnyy in 2012,” Mr. Browder said on Twitter.

The public inquiry into Mr. Litvinenkos death came even as British officials fought strenuously to block a deeper look into the circumstances, including using security legislation to seal some details from public scrutiny.

The head of the Home Office at the time was Theresa May, who is now the prime minister of country that must find a response after the death of another Russian on British soil.

By: The New York Times

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