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The unquiet ghost of Alexander Litvinenko

Russian forces used images of Litvinenko for target practice

The assassination of the former spy in London was a message that enemies of the Kremlin are not safe anywhere

Shocker! Nearly a decade after Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security services agent, died in London, a public inquiry into the death has concluded that the then-head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, “probably” approved the killing, and that it was “also” probably approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Patrushev is an interesting character. Besides the Litvinenko case, the former Russian spy chief was recently in the news for quoting a retired KGB psychic (yes, psychic) to support his claim that the United States doesn’t want Russia to retain possession of the Far East and Siberia. It makes zero sense, especially considering America’s wariness towards China’s ambitions in the region, but KGB psychics don’t need to make sense – they only need to play on existing prejudices and fears.

Another interesting character who makes a lot of appearances in the just-released Litvinenko report is the late Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who aided and abetted the rise of Putin in Russia before falling out with his administration and fleeing to Britain. Berezovsky is also now dead, of course – seemingly from hanging, and the cause of death was, disconcertingly, ruled unknown.

Litvinenko had close ties to Berezovsky, and over the years, eager pro-Kremlin conspiracy theorists have insisted that it was the tycoon who had Litvinenko killed, allegedly because they had a falling out and because Litvinenko had decided to “blackmail” him. The public inquiry points out that Andrei Lugovoy, one of the two people the UK directly accuses of the kiling, is one of the main proponents of this theory.

Why would Berezovsky, himself an exile in Britain, choose such an ostentatious way of killing a man he had employed for years, even if they did have a tiff? It makes no sense. It has never made any sense.

Polonium-210, which was used to kill Litvinenko, is an extremely dangerous radioactive substance. Its use in an assassination sent a message to dissidents and disgruntled former Russian state employees everywhere. “You’re not safe anywhere,” that message goes. “Not only will we kill you, but we’ll do it with style. We’ll even turn it into a kind of joke – you know, drop poison in your tea in tea-drinking jolly old England.”

In that sense, it almost doesn’t matter if the Russian president was personally involved in the decision to off Litvinenko. What matters is that he presides over a state where such in-your-face political killings of people are considered to be sort of…OK, perhaps not pleasant, but nothing to publicly freak out about.

"One can argue that the current Russian government enjoys looking nuts – because nuts means unpredictable, and unpredictable means scary"

What really matters now is the political fall-out from the inquiry, which Russia has already dismissed as a “joke.”

Relations between Britain and Russia are already pretty terrible, but of course everyone knew what the inquiry was likely to contain long before it came out.

In that sense, it almost seems that, at this point, both the Brits and the Russians are simply playing their assigned roles. One side is “deeply disturbed,” and the other side is laughing.

As far as foreign policy goes, the murder remains a political inconvenience – it makes Britain look vulnerable, and it makes Russia look nuts. One can argue that the current Russian government enjoys looking nuts – because nuts means unpredictable, and unpredictable means scary – but Russia also enjoys looking decisive, and there doesn’t seem to be a decisive way for Russia to respond.

The Russian government has cashed in its chips as far as relations with the West go, at least for now. There are way bigger issues on its domestic agenda at the moment besides Litvinenko – most Russians don’t care about some ex-spook dying in a foreign country, but they do care about the plummeting ruble.

Of course, I could be wrong, and the Russians could take the current situation as a challenge. Perhaps more inventive and self-sabotaging counter-sanctions will materialize, especially if Britain decides to respond to the inquiry with sanctions that are more than symbolic.

One still gets the sense that most players would much rather just lay Litvinenko to rest. It’s just that unquiet ghosts have no choice but to haunt the living.

Natalia Antonova is a journalist and playwright. She has written for The Guardian, Mashable, openDemocracy, Newsweek, The Moscow Times and others. She was the last editor of The Moscow News, Russia's oldest English language newspaper, before it was shut down after the Kremlin liquidated its parent news agency, RIA Novosti.

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  1. Peter Pomerantsev is an award-winning TV producer and a contributor to the London Review of Books. His writing has been published in the Financial Times,New Yorker,Wall Street Journal,Foreign Policy,Daily Beast, Newsweek,Le Monde Diplomatique, among others. He has also worked as a consultant for the EU and World Bank. He is the author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia.