Poisoning a British citizen on British soil crossed a line—and presaged nearly a decade of bad behavior.
The grave of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London Toby Melville / Reuters
In many ways it all began with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko.
Not that Vladimir Putin’s Russia was exactly a model global citizen before the November 2006 killing of the former KGB spy who defected to Great Britain. But when Litvinenko was lethally poisoned after drinking tea laced with polonium in a London hotel in November 2006, it heralded Russia’s transformation from being a mere international pain to being a full-blown outlaw state.
An official British investigation into the incident has now concluded that former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi and his accomplice Dmitry Kovtun killed Litvinenko, most likely with Putin’s approval. (Both men have denied the charges.) And that was the moment when Russia fully went rogue. It was the point where the Kremlin stopped even pretending to play by international rules. It was the point where Moscow’s gangster state truly went international.
In fact, at the time he was killed, Litvinenko waspreparing to testify in a Spanish investigation into ties between Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and Russian organized-crime groups operating in Europe. And after Putin’s agents allegedly whacked a British citizen on British soil and got away with it, Russia started breaking bad.
Months later, in April 2007, came Russia’s cyber attacks on Estonia that hit that country’s parliament, banks, and government ministries. And the following year, in August 2008, came the invasion of Georgia.
Litvinenko’s killing was also a prologue to the more recent litany of bad behavior and law-breaking: the little green men and the annexation of Crimea, the hybrid war in the Donbas, and the downing of Flight MH17 by Moscow-backed separatists.
It was a harbinger of Moscow’s new fondness for hostage-taking, a wave that has seen Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver, Ukrainian Air Force pilot Nadia Savchenko, and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov kidnapped from their home countries and hauled before show trials in Russia to face ridiculous charges.
It was a prelude to the recent wave of cyberattacks on targets including a French television network, a German steelmaker, the Warsaw stock exchange, The New York Times, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. State Department, and the White House.
The British investigation, which concluded that Litvinenko was “probably” killed on Putin’s personal order, is important because it provides by far the most damning confirmation of a link between the assassination and the Kremlin’s inner sanctum. It gives an official imprimatur to what has long been widely suspected. It reminds us of the utter outrageousness of what happened nearly a decade ago.
The Litvinenko killing crossed a line.
There were, of course, signs before Litvinenko’s killing that Putin’s Russia was headed for the dark side. A month earlier, investigative journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment building—on Putin’s birthday. And in 2004, Russia brazenly interfered in Ukraine’s presidential election, and is widely suspected of being involved in the poisoning of the eventual winner, Viktor Yushchenko. There was also the February 2004 assassination of Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in the Qatari capital, Doha.
But the Litvinenko killing—which was described by a lawyer for the London police as “a nuclear attack on the streets of London”—crossed a line.
Nine years and two months ago, Putin learned that he could get away with murder—even of foreign citizens on foreign soil. And we’ve been living with the consequences ever since.