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Putin ‘Probably’ Approved Litvinenko Poisoning, U.K. Inquiry Says

Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably” approved the poisoning of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in a London hotel bar, a British inquiry has concluded.


A British judge said Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably approved” the assassination of former Russian intelligence officer, Alexander Litvinenko. Photo: Getty Images.

By

Alexis Flynn

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LONDON—Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably approved” the poisoning of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in a London hotel bar, according to a inquiry established by the U.K. government.

The long-awaited finding marks the most explicit official link to Mr. Putin and is likely to strain already frayed ties between Moscow and the U.K., at a time when Western countries are seeking Mr. Putin’s cooperation in such areas as resolving the Syria war and fighting the extremist group Islamic State.

Mr. Litvinenko, a Kremlin critic who had become a British citizen, suffered a slow, painful death in 2006 after drinking tea laced with polonium-210, a deadly radioactive isotope of the element polonium.

Marina Litvinenko, widow of Alexander Litvinenko, reading a statement outside of the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Thursday. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokeswoman called the conclusion “extremely disturbing,” adding that it confirmed what the current and previous U.K. governments already believed.

She said, however, that the U.K.’s response had to be weighed against the need to work with Moscow in other areas of British national interest, such as combating Islamic State.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the British government of trying to “put the freeze on” relations. “Such quasi-investigations, which is what we are talking about here, can only further poison the atmosphere of our bilateral relations,” he said.

Retired judge Robert Owen, who led the inquiry, said in his report that he was “sure” that Mr. Litvinenko had been poisoned by the two Russian men whom British prosecutors have previously accused of his murder: Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB bodyguard, and his childhood friend Dmitry Kovtun, himself a onetime Soviet army officer.

The two men deny any involvement.

Mr. Owen continued that it was probable that the murder was conducted on the orders of Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, with the direct knowledge and approval of Mr. Putin and the FSB’s former director, Nikolai Patrushev.

‘Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me, I find that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev and by President Putin.’

“Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me, I find that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev and by President Putin,” Mr. Owen said in concluding his 327-page report.

While Mr. Owen didn’t provide direct evidence of a link to Mr. Putin, he said there was a “strong circumstantial case” that included evidence that Mr. Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium that had been manufactured in a nuclear reactor, and that Mr. Putin and members of Mr. Putin’s administration had motives for killing Mr. Litvinenko, including believing him to be working as a spy for the U.K.

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  • Read the Report

The British government has neither confirmed nor denied employing him as an intelligence operative.

The former judge also heard extensive evidence in private, including from British intelligence officers, that he said was also decisive.

The U.K. government said it summoned the Russian ambassador in London Thursday to express its view that the findings would “undermine trust, and damage Russia’s reputation internationally.” It also said it would freeze the assets of Messrs. Lugovoi and Kovtun. The U.K. had previously expelled four Russian officials and tightened visa controls on Russian officials.

The Russian Embassy in London called the conclusion “absolutely unacceptable” and “an attempt to put additional pressure on Russia in connection with existing differences over a number of international issues,” which it didn’t specify.

‘We are sorry that a purely criminal case has been politicized and has marred the overall atmosphere of bilateral relations.’

Mr. Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, and British opposition politicians called for a more strident response, including expelling all Russian intelligence operatives and imposing targeted sanctions against senior Russian officials, including Mr. Putin.

Andy Burnham, a senior member of the main opposition Labour Party, described the killing of Mr. Litvinenko as “an unparalleled act of state-sponsored terrorism that must meet with a commensurate response.”

Mr. Litvinenko isn’t the only Russian exile to die on British soil in recent years in unusual circumstances.

In 2013, the body of Boris Berezovsky was discovered on the bathroom floor in his home. A coroner said he couldn’t definitively establish whether the tycoon had hanged himself or was strangled by an unknown intruder.

Alexander Litvinenko and a colleague, masked to protect his identity, at a news conference in 1998. Photo: sergei kaptilkin/European Pressphoto Agency

In addition, a pre-inquest hearing last year heard that another Russian businessman, Alexander Perepilichnyy, who died suddenly near his home in the U.K. in 2012, may have been poisoned. Toxicology results are due to presented next month.

Mr. Owen heard evidence from 62 witnesses last year. At the time Mr. Litvinenko drank the tea, he was in the company of Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun, the alleged killers. A police investigation found they left a radioactive trail across London, including in restaurants, their hotel rooms and even at a soccer stadium where they had watched a match.

Mr. Lugovoi, currently a member of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, told Russian news agency Interfax that the charges against him were absurd, saying the case was motivated by “anti-Russian hysteria.”

Mr. Kovtun, also speaking to Interfax, reiterated that he wasn’t involved in Mr. Litvinenko’s death and said Mr. Owen’s conclusion was based on “falsified, fabricated evidence.”

Mr. Litvinenko, a former colonel in Russia’s security service, was a longtime irritant to Mr. Putin. After fleeing to Britain in 2000 to seek asylum, he wrote a book accusing Mr. Putin of coming to power by organizing a series of apartment bombings in 1999 that prompted Russia’s invasion of Chechnya.

More on the Litvinenko affair

Alexander Litvinenko at a news conference in Moscow in 1998. Photo: Reuters

  • Litvinenko Inquiry Concludes
  • Russia Says Poison Suspect Is Victim

Mr. Litvinenko’s family has said he was hired by British intelligence shortly after his arrival in the U.K., something the British government hasn’t commented on.

Mr. Owen said the important point was that Russia believed Mr. Litvinenko was working as a spy for the U.K., and was therefore a target in their eyes.

“There were powerful motives for organizations and individuals within the Russian state to take actions against Mr. Litvinenko, including killing him,” said Mr. Owen in the report.

—Nathan Hodge and Nicholas Winning contributed to this article.

Write to Alexis Flynn at alexis.flynn@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium-210, a deadly radioactive isotope of the element polonium. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said polonium is an isotope. (March 8, 2018)

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