The Nuking of Alexander Litvinenko

Four major political assassinations with international implications in the past year, three in the last month or so: Rafik Hariri and Pierre Gemayel in Lebanon, and two Russians, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist, and former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. Is it just a passing fad, or is somebody trying to tell us something?

These murders are remarkably similar, not merely in that they were all politically motivated, but also in the journalistic narrative subsequently woven around them. The story line is simple and straightforward: in each case, the long arm of an evil dictator struck down internal critics. Four murders and two culprits – Syria and Russia. Two countries that, with the transfer of Russian missiles to Damascus, have entered a de facto military alliance and maintain good relations with Iran. Both have been singled out as prime candidates for regime change, at least as far as the unrepentant neoconservatives are concerned.

Since the president’s infamous “axis of evil” speech, the axis has expanded beyond the original Iran-Iraq-North Korea trio to include Cuba, Syria, and Libya (the latter has since come in from the cold). And the expansion continues, with the latest candidate for axis-of-evildom being Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The regime-changers have it in for Putin for a number of reasons, including the politics of energy and oil (Russia has the world’s biggest natural gas reserves and the eighth-largest oil reserves), the politics of the Middle East (Putin’s coziness with Tehran and Damascus), and the politics of pure power (Russia is big, nuclear-armed, and under Putin pursues an independent foreign policy).

In any case, the diplomatic and journalistic offensive against the Kremlin has been underway for some time, with the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and now the macabre poisoning of Litvinenko giving the Russophobes plenty of rope with which to hang Putin, whom they now liken to Stalin. The British media has been aflame with the fiery accusations not only of the victim, but also of Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch who sponsored and supported Litvinenko in exile: both pin the blame squarely on the Russian president. However, on Saturday the Independent newspaper fairly summed up the conventional wisdom as it is evolving:

“Most believe the theory is implausible: if the Kremlin wanted to kill Litvinenko, why attract world-wide publicity? A quiet bullet would have been equally effective.”

Why indeed. And why, pray tell, choose a highly unusual method of offing their target – with polonium-210, a highly radioactive and very rare metal, which is likely to have been produced in tandem with a sophisticated technical and scientific apparatus associated with a state sponsor? The Kremlin might just as well have left its calling card. Yet the hysterical lynch-mob mentality that is now crying out for Putin’s blood is completely illogical, given a moment’s reflection, for a good number of reasons.

To begin with, Litvinenko’s own deathbed statement to the contrary, there is no good reason why the KGB would target someone whose wild accusations are no more credible than our own prophets of the “9/11 Truth movement.” Here, after all, is a Russian convert to Islam who has accused the Russian security services, specifically the FSB, of bombing Russian cities in an elaborate plot to justify the war on Chechnya and generate political support for Putin’s domestic policies. He also claimed that the Russians were behind al-Qaeda and the Beslan massacre: he was sure the KGB trained and funded Ayman al-Zawahiri. He accused Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi of being a Soviet agent, and even went so far as to announce that Putin is a pedophile.

Lacking a certain credibility, Litvinenko’s foam-flecked screeching never had much of an audience inside Russia. Why would the KGB bother with this kook? To posit that they would risk a long, drawn-out martyrdom, acted out in front of the international media, complete with drama queen Litvinenko waffling on about how he heard the beating of “the wings of the angel of death drawing near” – it just doesn’t compute.

Yet the media narrative we are being spoon-fed – particularly by the British tabloid press – is blithely indifferent to such old-fashioned values as logic and facts. The Telegraph is typical, with endless pieces detailing the entire sordid history of the KGB, replete with past poisoning incidents and well-larded with quotes from Berezovsky and his various sock-puppets voicing their certainty that the Kremlin was behind the killing. Yet even the Russophobic Telegraph has to admit – after listing all the possible reasons to point the accusing finger at Russia – that, as their Whitehall source put it:

“We are at a very early stage in the investigation and to date there is not a single piece of evidence that points directly to the Russians, so we have to keep an open mind.”

Yeah, but not too open. The Times of London has been particularly outraged, devoting at least one editorial to deploring this apparent invasion of central London by Russian “terrorism” – and the rest of the right-wing media, in lockstep with the leftist Guardian and the Labor government, is marching to the same tune. In the U.S., the hysteria is even shriller, with David Pryce-Jones at National Review announcing:

“The murder reveals that the Soviet Union is arising, vampire-like, from its grave.”

The anti-Semitic wackos over at, a Web site run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, agree:

“Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning is, as we are led to believe by a small cadre of prominent Internet bloggers and their cheerleaders, some kind of elaborate set-up on behalf of Zionists and Neo-Cons to drag Putin’s name through the mud, then why do today’s major Israeli newspapers carry scant mention of the former spy’s death?

“Apologists for Putin have attempted to weave a yarn that somehow suggests Litvinenko was knowingly poisoned by Zionist or Neo-Con agents in order to make it appear as if Putin was the culprit.

“If this was the case then we’d expect to see the biggest Neo-Con and Zionist media fronts in Israel, the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz, to be wallowing in coverage of the former spy’s death in a London hospital last night.

“Yet both the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz chose to bury the story near the bottom of their websites, even as it was the top story at Reuters and BBC News.”

According to the twisted worldview of those who inhabit the latter-day Jonestown of “Prison Planet,” the entire Israeli media is in the hip pockets of the neoconservatives, which, as we all know – not! – is just a polite euphemism for Jews. If they didn’t pay sufficient attention to the Litvinenko brouhaha, then that proves – what? Well, it proves exactly zilch, but try telling that to these deluded Jonestowners.

Litvinenko sought, without much success, to implant the methodology of the “9/11 Truthers” in Russian soil, writing that the bombings of several apartment buildings in Russia during the 1990s were government-directed “psy-ops” schemes designed to provoke war with Chechnya and give Putin a free hand inside Russia. The Beslan massacre, according to both Litvinenko and Jones, was “staged” by the Russians: and those poor little innocent Chechens, normally as gentle as lambs, were scapegoated by a mad and murderous tsar.

Oleg Sultanov, a Russian journalist who infiltrated Berezovsky’s network-in-exile, was commissioned by the oligarch to write a book on Putin’s Russia, with the one requirement that it must be “as scary as possible.” Says Sultanov:

“‘It was meant to be some kind of “foundation study” of the horrors of contemporary Russia and the criminal role of the special services,’ Sultanov recalled. ‘After all, that is the core of Berezovsky’s theory: the special services, and Putin the former KGB agent, are responsible for everything that’s happening in Russia – all the contract murders, terrorist attacks, frauds.

“‘First there was the documentary: An Assault On Russia; then the book by Litvinenko the defector; the next link in this chain was meant to be my “epic,”‘ he said. ‘Alex Goldfarb, Berezovsky’s closest ally, admitted the Litvinenko books were a flop. So it’s urgently necessary to create some hot new reading material which would prove that “our cause is just” and Putin is the enemy of the human race.'”

Does anybody really believe this malarkey?

Well, our own nutballs apparently do, along with much of what passes for the “mainstream” media – but the Russian people… no. That doesn’t matter, however, as the Russians aren’t the intended audience for this propaganda barrage: it is Western public opinion that is being mobilized against the Russkies in an attempt to rekindle the Cold War. The latest stunt of the Russophobes is to demonize Putin as a mad poisoner, and it is unfortunately succeeding.

Make no mistake: this incident represents the gravest threat. After all, if someone could smuggle this stuff into Britain and carry out an assassination, then why not al-Qaeda? To add an extra layer of spookiness over the whole affair, we are simultaneously hearing predictions of a nuclear attack on Britain to be mounted by al-Qaeda. Which is why the COBRA anti-terrorist committee of the British cabinet dealt directly with the problem as soon as it became apparent that Litvinenko had been effectively nuked.

Given the technical details, the likelihood increases that this is a case of state-sponsored terrorism, one made all the more ominous by the use of radioactive materials. The question now is: which state?

Everyone is assuming the Russians did it, but this is counterintuitive for all the reasons given above and yet more. After all, are the Russophobes really saying that Putin has launched what amounts to a small-scale nuclear attack on British soil, targeting a British citizen? (Litvinenko was granted citizenship just a month prior to his death). That strains credulity to the breaking point, and raises the question: well, then, who killed Litvinenko?

There are several alternative theories – alternatives, that is, to the War Party’s “Putin did it” mantra – which I’ll list in descending order in terms of credibility, with the least likely scenarios first:

1) A rogue element of Russian intelligence, or some other part of the military-security apparatus, did it, either out of revenge or as part of a struggle for power among Putin’s subordinates. The problems with this theory are, (a) there is no evidence for it, and (b) it is unlikely such a plot would go undetected by the Russians for very long. The assassination of Litvinenko in such a spectacular manner would benefit no one except those who seek to undermine Putin’s legacy and his chosen successors. This leaves open the possibility, however, that those who have not been chosen might be sufficiently PO’d to create an incident – although one can hardly believe they would damage the interests of their own country to such an extreme degree.

2) Litvinenko committed suicide as a final gesture of enmity directed at his old enemy. This possibility is being actively investigated, prompted by “increasing concerns over the reliability of the Russian dissident’s death-bed testimony.” One can certainly understand why authorities take Litvinenko’s own statements with a very large grain of salt, yet, from what I can glean about Litvinenko’s personality, suicide seems unlikely. So convinced was this marginal figure of his own importance that one doubts he would end a life he considered so uniquely valuable. In his own mind he was a major figure in a historic struggle: Litvinenko had an ego as big as all the Russias. People like that never kill themselves: they’re much too attached to their own skin.

3) The trio of Andrei Lugovoi, Dmitri Kovtun, and Vyacheslav Sokolenko, who met with Litvinenko hours before he fell ill, are surely prime suspects, although all vehemently deny having anything to do with the assassination. While Kovtun seems like an ordinary businessman, and I couldn’t track down anything on Sokolenko, Lugovoi is quite a character: an ex-KGB officer and former bodyguard to Yegor Gaider, forced to leave the Motherland rather suddenly on account of the Glushkov affair. Former Aeroflot chairman Nikolai Glushkov and accomplices made off with some $250 million in Aeroflot’s cash – with much of it somehow winding up in Boris Berezovsky’s Swiss bank account. Glushkov was jailed, and Lugovoi, who happened to be warden of the jail, helped him escape to neighboring Georgia, a favorite haven for Russian mafia on the run. Lugovoi was charged and mysteriously released, although he claims he was acquitted.

In any case, Lugovoi is part and parcel of the Berezovsky network, and if he had anything to do with the murder then the theory that this was a falling-out among Russian exiles, dressed up to look like a KGB hit, gains credibility. But how, then, does one explain the method utilized: polonium-210, which only a state is likely to have access to?

Then again, if we look at Berezovsky’s estimated fortune of some $3 billion, his empire is for all intents and purposes a mini-state. Add to this the assets of other exiled oligarchs, including many who fled to Israel, and you have resources equal to the task of procuring and delivering polonium-210 to any target. Yet this still doesn’t rule out state involvement in the operation, even if we assume Litvinenko’s death resulted from some internecine squabble within the London-based exile community.

4) Mario Scaramella, the Italian academic and “information peddler,” who acted as a consultant on the Mitrokhin Commission, is clearly implicated by Litvinenko himself in this account published in the Sunday Times of London:

“At lunchtime in Piccadilly Litvinenko met the Italian, who said he was tired and needed to sit down. They repaired to a nearby Japanese restaurant, Itsu. ‘I ordered lunch,’ Litvinenko said. ‘But he ate nothing. He appeared to be nervous. He handed me a four-page document which he said he wanted me to read straight away. It contained a list of names of people, including FSB officers, who were purported to be connected with [Politkovskaya’s] murder. The document was an e-mail but it was not an official document. I couldn’t understand why he had to come all the way to London to give it to me. He could have e-mailed it to me. I put it in my bag because I thought I’d look at it at home. But he said he wanted me to look at it right now. So I pulled it out of my bag. There were people who had to do with Politkovskaya’s murder.…

“‘I looked at some names. And I said I cannot tell you right away who these people are. There were some names in the text. … Something about Berezovsky, something about me. I cannot accuse him of anything but the whole meeting was very strange.'”

This blogger has it all over Scaramella, who has discovered that Litvinenko was a bit better acquainted with the Italian than the Times‘ reporters suggest. Scaramella was apparently the source of the Prodi accusations, which were given voice by representatives of the UK Independence Party in the European Parliament. He digs up some other interesting stuff, too, such as this fascinating juxtaposition of differing views on Scaramella’s role in the Litvinenko affair:

“According to the FSB report published today in Moskovsky Komsomolets, Mr. Litvinenko was poisoned in a London restaurant by a CIA agent, Mario Scaramella, on November 1, 2006, purportedly in connection with his role as a double agent, the role invented by the FSB in this story to discredit Mr. Litvinenko.

“As earlier reported by the Chechepress news agency, Mario Scaramella is a FSB agent in Italy and a close friend and business partner of the FSB deputy chief Kolmogorov. The Italian visited several time the FSB headquarters in Moscow.”

CIA or KGB – take your pick, according to your ideological inclinations! This report characterizes Scaramella as “a close associate of the FSB deputy chief Viktor Kolmogorov,” but that seems unlikely for someone who has served on the Mitrokhin Commission and specializes in exposing the dark secrets of the KGB.

On the more credible side of the ledger, we have evidence that Scaramella is indeed a professor at the University of Naples, as well as general secretary of something called the Environmental Crime Prevention Program. As people line up in London to get tested for exposure to radiation, one can only wonder what role someone so concerned with environmental crime played in all this…

Another tidbit uncovered by European Tribune:

“He officially pontificated at various OSCE and Italian Space Agency get-togethers in 2001 – at least one of which was also attended by SISMI agent Marco Mancini of Abu Omar kidnapping fame.”

When I see the acronym SISMI, somehow the sheer craziness of the Litvinenko affair begins to make a kind of twisted sense.

The Litvinenko affair recalls another SISMI-connected adventure, the Niger uranium forgeries, in that it also involves a document of dubious provenance, as described by the Times:

“The document apparently named a group called Dignity and Honour, a mercenary organisation made up of former KGB spies. It is suspected of being used by the FSB for ‘deniable’ operations. ‘He [Scaramella] asked me: “Are these dangerous people? Am I in danger?”‘ said Litvinenko.”

It looks like Litvinenko was the one in danger, and not, it appears, from Vladimir Putin. As the European Tribune blogger put it:

“A high-profile, right-of-centre ‘university professor’/’security expert’ (choose one) and prolific Mitrokhin-commission consultant on the more lurid zones of alleged KGB/Soviet misdeeds … on excellent terms with Senator Paolo Guzzanti of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party … does seem a somewhat improbable figure to get pinned with the role of Putin’s latest undercover hitman.”

The world media is rushing to judgement and condemning Putin as the mad mastermind behind this terrorist act, yet there are some rather big problems with this theory: none of the known suspects are likely KGB assassins. Their loyalties, as far as can be discerned, lie in quite the opposite direction: Lugovoi, who ran afoul of the Putin administration, and Scaramella, whose anti-KGB credentials are apparently impeccable. The prejudices of the media, and the editorial writers, lead us down one path, but the facts – at least as they are known so far – take us down quite another.

Prejudice and political agendas always get in the way, but – in the end – the facts will come out, and when they do I’d be willing to bet that, no, Putin has not gone mad, and Russia did not nuke a British citizen on British soil.

Just as it makes no political or strategic sense for Syria to have offed Hariri and Gemayel, so the murders of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko seem oddly counterintuitive if we attribute them to the KGB. In the end, we have to ask: who benefits from Litvinenko’s dramatic death? The answer: the oligarchs, and Putin’s enemies in general.

That nuclear terrorism has raised its ugly head in this form is particularly ominous. What it shows is that we have more than al-Qaeda to worry about – and that we don’t even know the face of this particular enemy.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].