Britain using spy illness to demonise Moscow, says Litvinenko murder suspect
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Andrei Lugovoi, one of the prime suspects in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, has suggested that the apparent poisoning of a Russian spy in Salisbury is part of a British campaign to demonise Moscow.
“I don’t rule out that this is another provocation by British intelligence agencies,” said Lugovoi, a pro-Kremlin MP and former FSB spy agency officer.
“Whatever happens on [British] territory, they start yelling: ‘He was killed, he was hung, he was poisoned!’ and that Russia is to blame for everything. This is to their advantage,” he told Russian media.
Lugovoi’s comments come as Sergei Skripal, 66, a Russian former military intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia, 33, remain critically ill in hospital. They were found unconscious on a bench in a shopping centre in the small Wiltshire city after exposure to an unknown substance.
Who was Alexander Litvinenko?
Alexander Litvinenko had been an officer with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, but fled to Britain where he became a fierce critic of the Kremlin, and a British citizen.
Litvinenko fell ill and died in November 2006 after drinking a cup of tea laced with radioactive polonium, sparking a major international incident.
He met his killers in the Millennium hotel in Mayfair, central London. The pair were Andrei Lugovoi – a former KGB officer turned businessman, who is now a deputy in Russia’s state Duma – and Dmitry Kovtun, a childhood friend of Lugovoi’s from a Soviet military family. Vladimir Putin denied involvement and refused requests to extradite either of the killers from Moscow.
A public inquiry in 2015 and 2016 heard five months of evidence, including secret submissions from UK spy agencies. Its chairman, Sir Robert Owen, concluded that the FSB had murdered Litvinenko, assigning Lugovoi and Kovtun to carry out the mission.
Owen also ruled that Putin had “probably approved” the operation.
Skripal was convicted in 2006 by a Russian court of spying for Britain, and sentenced to 13 years in jail. In 2010, he was one of four Russians swapped for 10 deep-cover “sleeper” agents planted by Moscow in the US, including Anna Chapman, a diplomat’s daughter.
Who is the Salisbury spy Sergei Skripal? – video explainer
Lugovoi, 51, was charged in 2007 by Britain with murdering Litvinenko, also an ex-FSB officer, by poisoning his tea with radioactive polonium in the lobby of a Mayfair hotel. He denied the allegations. President Vladimir Putin dismissed accusations of Russian involvement and refused to extradite Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, another suspect, to Britain. The row plunged British-Russian relations to a post-cold war low.
The Kremlin said on Tuesday it has no information about the incident involving Skripal and his daughter.
Alexander Litvinenko in the intensive care unit of University College Hospital, London, 2006. He died three days later. Photograph: Natasja Weitsz/Channel 4 Picture Publicity
“We don’t possess any information about what could have been the cause [of Skripal’s illness], and what this could be connected to,” said Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman. He said Russia had not been contacted by Britain but it was ready to assist in any investigation. “Moscow is always open to cooperation,” Peskov said, calling the incident “tragic”.
Speaking in 2010, Putin, a former KGB officer, said “traitors always end badly”. “Secret services live by their own laws and these laws are very well known to anyone who works for a secret service,” he said.
However, Peskov appeared to mock British media speculation that Skripal could have been poisoned by Russian agents, saying: “It didn’t take them long.”
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist politician and presidential candidate, suggested that British intelligence services could have poisoned Skripal because “he was of no more use to them” and knew secrets that he could have sold on. He also said his poisoning with “some mysterious, rare substance” may have been an attempt by Britain intelligence to blame “murderous Russia” for the suspected hit on the former spy.
The Russian embassy in London described British media reporting of the hospitalisation of Skripal as part of an anti-Russian campaign. “The way the situation is being described by British media causes serious concern,” a spokesman for the embassy said.
Argumenty i Fakty, a popular Russian tabloid, said “western propaganda” would exploit Skripal’s illness “to the full”. Some Kremlin supporters on social media suggested the incident was aimed at discrediting Putin ahead of this month’s presidential elections.
“Clearly the Kremlin will know what to do with this story for domestic political purposes,” said Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London. “At the moment this fits into this argument about Russia being surrounded by enemies.
What is Russia’s GRU intelligence agency?
Powerful and mysterious, the GRU is one of Russia’s three intelligence agencies. It has been accused by the US of having taken the lead in hacking the 2016 US presidential election.
Russia also has the FSB and SVR. The former is the sprawling structure that absorbed most parts of the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union, while the latter is the part that focused on spying abroad, which became a new structure in modern Russia.
The GRU, the intelligence wing of the Russian army, has always been a separate entity. All three run agents and missions abroad.
The GRU went into decline in the 1990s and there was some talk of disbanding it, but in 2006 it moved to new headquarters. It was considered instrumental in Russian manoeuvres to annex Crimea in 2014 and subsequent interference in eastern Ukraine.
The level of secrecy surrounding the GRU is so high that there was even speculation in 2016 that it had changed its name without anybody knowing.
“In Western responses to Russia there is much hyperbole, and it is rapidly making everything Russia-linked seem as toxic as whatever poisoned Skripal. In a sense, Russophobia is becoming a reality. But the cure to the syndrome lies in Moscow,” he said.
Skripal served in Russia’s GRU military intelligence until 1999, reaching the rank of colonel. He then worked at the Russia foreign ministry’s office in Moscow until 2003, when he went into business. He was arrested in 2006 and charged with passing the identities of Russian agents working undercover in Europe to MI6. Russian prosecutors said he had been paid $100,000 (£72,000) by MI6 for information he had been supplying since 1995, when he was a serving officer.
“You outplayed me,” Skripal reportedly told FSB agents after his arrest. An FSB spokesperson at the time compared Skripal to Col Oleg Penkovsky, who was executed by the Soviet Union in 1963 for supplying the US with information during the Cuban missile crisis.
According to her Facebook page, Yulia Skripal worked at Holiday Inn in Southampton until 2014, when she returned to live in Russia. A friend, Irina Petrova, told the Guardian she had never expressed fears that her father could be targeted by Russian intelligence. “They lived calm and measured lives,” she said.