Getting Away With Murder in London

The British government will have to swallow the embarrassment of Russia carrying out a nuclear assassination on its soil as Putin wins another round. Will Tel Aviv become the new haven for Russian defectors?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the Presidential Council for Science and Education at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, January 21, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the Presidential Council for Science and Education at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, January 21, 2016. Credit: Reuters

There were very few surprises in the report of the public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, published on Thursday in London by Judge Sir Robert Owen. The identity of the Russians who had killed the former intelligence agent over nine years ago, using pollonium-210, was already known and the motives for the assassination were clear as well. Litvinenko had been supplying western intelligence with intimate details of the Kremlin’s spying operations, in particular its cooperation with Russian organized crime groups. There was one surprise, though, that the British government could have done without. The judge went one step further and fingered both former FSB Chief Nikolai Patrushev as “probably” having ordered the hit, and his boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, as having authorizing it. The report’s conclusion is a massive headache for the British. It means that whatever step they take, or more likely, don’t take, will have major diplomatic implications. 

So far, it seems clear that inaction is to be the policy. Beyond freezing the assets of the two alleged assassins, a step which we can assume they were prepared for years ago, and keeping the already issued international arrest warrants valid, Britain isn’t going to do anything. Prime Minister David Cameron had no choice but to admit that under the current situation, with Russia being the main international actor in Syria, and Britain a much more junior player, gripped by the fear of an ISIS terror attack, this is not the time to jeopardize the already tense relations with Moscow. This isn’t an empty fear. Putin already showed two months ago, following the shooting down of a Russian bomber on the Syria-Turkey border, that he has no hesitations in suspending his country’s important relations with Turkey, when Russia’s national pride is at stake. Britain is probably right to assume that any meaningful sanction over the Litvinenko murder could endanger what little intelligence-sharing and military coordination with Russia it has.

But there are other reasons for inaction as well. When the British government wants to use its considerable financial levers, due to London’s position as one of the world’s largest banking and insurance capitals, it can. Four years ago, when Cameron decided to join both the United States and Israel in deepening the sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, his people passed on the necessary message which swiftly cut the Iranians off from the global economy. The price of cutting Iran off was relatively small. The Russian oligarchs, however, are another matter. No-one can accurately assess the scale of money-laundering which has been going through bank accounts and hedge funds in the City of London, in the offshore tax havens which are British dominions and in the spiraling real estate market of its capital. There is no doubt, however, that it reaches hundreds of billions of pounds. Cameron is extremely wary of doing anything that could harm Britain’s main engine of economic growth, its financial services sector. 

Alexander Litvinenko is seen lying in his hospital bed, November 20, 2006.Credit: Reuters

The prime minister has a much more burning issue on his agenda. He is in a difficult period of negotiations with his European Union counterparts on the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU, as he faces a crucial referendum on the possibility of Britain leaving the Union altogether. The EU, which had no choice in 2014 but to announce sanctions on Russia, following its invastion of Crimea, is anxiously looking for ways to ease or even remove them. Any step by Britain in the opposite direciton will make it that much harder for Cameron in his talks in Brussels in Berlin.

Putin, the former FSB agent, issued a clear warning to potential Russian defectors with the Litvinenko hit: Even if you find sanctuary in a western capital, we will come after you and you will meet a painful end. The wave of defections in the early years of the last decade dried up. It will be interesting to see whether another destination, which has already attracted some Russian fugitives and oligarchs, Israel, will now become even more attractive. According to western intelligence sources, Russia and Israel have a quiet agreement whereby the Kremlin is committed to not carry out assassinations on Israeli soil. There are attractions not only for dissidents, but for Putin-supporting businesspeople as well – those who can prove Jewish heritage will receive Israeli citizenship and a degree of protection for their assets, which could be frozen if deposited in the EU or the U.S. 

One thing is certain and that is Putin has proven that for now at least, he can get away with murder in London. The inquiry may have publicly fingered him for carrying out a micro-nuclear attack on British soil, but there is no price to pay. 

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