PARIS—Whoever poisoned Alexander Litvinenko had two goals: a long and lingering death for the KGB defector and pointing a finger of accusation for his killing right in the face of Vladimir Putin.
Which leads me to believe Putin had nothing to do with it.
In an assassination, one must ask: Cui bono? To whose benefit? Who would gain from the poisoning of Litvinenko?
Certainly not Putin. Litvinenko’s death puts him, the Kremlin and the KGB, now the FSB, under suspicion of having reverted to the terror tactics of Stalin, who commissioned killers to liquidate enemies like Leon Trotsky, murdered in Mexico in 1940.
What benefit could Putin conceivably realize from the London killing of an enemy of his regime, who had just become a British citizen? Why would the Russian president, at the peak of his popularity, with his regime awash in oil revenue and himself playing a strong hand in world politics, risk a breach with every Western nation by ordering the public murder of a man who was more of a nuisance than a threat to his regime?
Litvinenko, after all, made his sensational charges against the Kremlin—that the KGB blew up the Moscow apartment buildings, not Chechen terrorists, as a casus belli for a war on Chechnya and that he had refused a KGB order to assassinate oligarch Boris Berezovsky— in the late 1990s. Of late, Litvinenko has been regarded as a less and less credible figure, with his charges of KGB involvement in 9-11 and complicity in the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad that ignited the Muslim firestorm.
Yet, listening to some Western pundits on the BBC and Fox News, one would think Putin himself poisoned Litvinenko. Who else, they ask, could have acquired polonium 210, the rare radioactive substance used to kill Litvinenko? Who else had the motive to eliminate the ex-agent who had dedicated his life to exposing the crimes of the Kremlin?
Indeed, no sooner had Litvinenko expired than his collaborator in anti-Putin politics, Alex Goldfarb, was in front of the television cameras reading Litvinenko’s deathbed statement charging Putin with murder:
"You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. … You may succeed in silencing me, but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed."
Litvinenko’s statement is awfully coherent and eloquent for a man writhing in a death agony. But if he did not write it, who did? All of which leads me to conclude Putin is being set up, framed for a crime he did not commit. But then, if Putin did not order the killing, who did?
Who else could have acquired the polonium 210? Who else would kill Litvinenko to make Putin a pariah? These are the questions Scotland Yard, which also seems skeptical that Putin had a hand in this bizarre business, has begun to ask.
As the predictable effect of Litvinenko’s death has been to put a cloud of suspicion over Putin and a chill over Russian relations with the West, one must ask: To whose benefit is the discrediting of Putin? Who would seek a renewal of the Cold War?
Certainly, the oligarchs and robber barons like Berezovsky—many of them now dispossessed of the wealth they amassed in a collapsing Soviet Union, and all of whom have been run out of the country or imprisoned—have the most powerful of motives. They hate Putin and seek to bring him down. And Goldfarb and Litvinenko both enjoyed the patronage of the billionaire Berezovsky.
Surely, rogue or retired KGB agents, passed over by Putin and bitter at Litvinenko, would have a motive: to send a message, written in polonium 210, that this is what happens to those who betray us and Mother Russia.
Scotland Yard has yet to declare this a murder case and is looking into the possibility of a "martyrdom operation"—suicide dressed up like murder—in which Litvinenko may have colluded. The Putin-dominated Russian press is pushing this line, as well as the idea of an oligarchs’ plot to discredit Putin and destroy Russia’s relations with the West.
Yet Litvinenko was still in his early 40s, with a wife and two children. While his agonizing public death would make him a celebrity even more famous than Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian anti-communist murdered in London in 1979 with a poison-tipped umbrella, Litvinenko would not be around to enjoy his fame.
America has a vital interest in this Scotland Yard investigation. What it discovers may tell us more about the character of the man into whose eyes George Bush claimed to have stared, and seen his soul, or it may tell us who the real enemies of this country are, who are out to restart the Cold War, and perhaps another hot one.