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Case study: The assassination of Alexander Litvinenko

Written by Roy Stranden

Published 2 December 2014

On November 23, 2006 former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital due to poisoning by the radioactive substance polonium-210. Earlier the same year the Federation Council in the Russian parliament approved a new law formally authorizing the Russian president to conduct extra-judicial killings abroad (Eke, 2006). Included in the group of people who can be targeted are not only terrorist and extremist, but also «those causing mass disturbance, committing hooliganism or act of vandalism» (Eke, 2006). Interestingly the law also define «those slandering the individual occupying the post of president of the Russian Federation» as extremists (Eke, 2006; Geary & Akunov, 2007).

Litvinenko, a former KGB and FSB agent and a strong critic of Vladimir Putin and the Russian security service FSB, fled to the West in 2000. Litvinenko feared reprisals after accusing FSB of corruption and involvement in the 1999 blowing up of an apartment block in Moscow. The latter was allegedly done in order to win Putin the 2000 presidential election (Bennett, 2006; Felshtinsky & Litvinenko, 2004; Geary & Akunov, 2007). Putin was the head of FSB until August 1999 (Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia, 2011).


Due to a combination of circumstances and skills, the medical team was able to identify why Litvinenko fell ill and subsequently died (Black, Tsai, & Yang, 2007). This made it possible for the British authorities to conduct an investigation leading to a diplomatic crisis between Great Britain and Russia.

British police have charged former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi for his involvement in the assassination of Litvinenko (BBC News, 2007b; Gardner, 2007). Even though evidence is leading back to Lugovoi and Russia, this does not automatically connect the Russian state to the case (Geary & Akunov, 2007, p. 100). However, there are clear indications that Russian authorities were involved in the assassination (BBC News, 2008; Geary & Akunov, 2007; Harding, 2010).

A meeting took place between Litvinenko, Lugovoi and two other Russians in the Pine Bar at London´s Millennium Mayfair Hotel on November 1, 2006 (BBC News, 2007b). During this meeting someone put the poison in Litvinenkos tea. Later the same day he was feeling sick and in a few days after Litvinenko was admitted to Barnet General Hospital in north London (BBC News, 2007e). The polonium-210 had spread around his body and the dose was big enough to kill him even if the medical team had figured out what the poison was before he died (Geary & Akunov, 2007). Lugovoi made it back to Russia before Metropolitan Police was able to finish the murder investigation and arrest him.

On this account it can be argued that the operation was successful, yet there were some unintended consequences. Due to different circumstances the method of assassinating Litvinenko became known. And because of the danger to innocent people in addition to the target, it raised a lot of concerns making the case bigger than just the assassination of a Russian dissident.

If the source of the poison had not been found it can be argued it would have been a technically and tactically well-executed plan. In a best-case scenario it would ascertain Litvinenkos death and all trace of the poison would have disappeared. However, when the source of the poison was discovered, due to the pollution of radiation, the trail could easily be traced back to Russia and making any involvement more difficult to deny (BBC News, 2007e). It can therefore be argued that the operation was partly a failure leading to diplomatic consequences between Russian and UK, in addition to bad publicity and goodwill in the West.

If Litvinenko had not been killed he probably would have continued with his accusations. However, it could be argued that he was not getting much attention. That changed dramatically after his assassination. Now his accusations are looked upon with a different perspective making him more believable. It can therefore be argued that for Putin and Russia the case of Litvinenko got from annoying to bad.


The British authorities regard this matter as a criminal case and not an intelligence matter. Russian authorities have also officially denied any involvement in the case (BBC News, 2007e). Due to the Metropolitan Police investigation the British authorities issued a formal request for Lugovois extradition. However, the Russian authorities have refused to comply. Their argument is that Lugovoi is a Russian citizen and that it would violate Russian law (BBC News, 2007b, 2007e).

Even though there had to be a reaction, the British government had to weigh up its potential actions carefully. On one hand there was a need to maintain good relations with Russia because of the, up till then, improving level of economic ties between the two countries (BBC News, 2007a, 2007f). However, there is no doubt that the British government views this case very seriously. Not only were a man murdered in London but because of the radioactive poison it also became a serious public safety issue (Black et al., 2007; Geary & Akunov, 2007; Gray, 2007; Oliver, 2006). Concern was also raised over whether one could expect more assassinations targeting Russian dissidents in London (Brown & Castle, 2006). The British government ended up with expelling four Russian diplomats in order to send «a clear and proportionate signal» that actions of this kind are not acceptable (BBC News, 2007a, 2007g). There were also made some travel restrictions for Russian officials (BBC News, 2007a).

After reacting to the British decision to expel Russian diplomats by expelling British diplomats from Russia, there were moves made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to normal ties with Great Britain, appealing to «the respect for each other´s interests and common sense» (BBC News, 2007c, 2007d).

There was, however, also a worry that this incident, and the following reaction from both British and Russian authorities, would affect the wider pattern of relation between Russia and the West (BBC News, 2007a). Even though both governments wanted to contain the damage there was the risk of further cooling the climate between Russia and the West (BBC News, 2007a). There were concerns that this incident could have consequences that extended the bilateral dispute (BBC News, 2007a). Britain did also at the time end their cooperation in the fight against terrorism with the Russian security service, the FSB (BBC News, 2007d, 2007e). 

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