Crime: The Spy Who Knew Too Much

The investigation into the death of a Russian dissident in London heats up and sheds an ugly light on Vladimir Putin's rule

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Putin, says Alexei Kondaurov, a former KGB general who is now a maverick Duma deputy, is known for keeping score and for a long memory. So the idea that he would want an infuriating gadfly like Litvinenko to disappear is not beyond reason. But the President's defenders scoff at the idea that he might have been involved in Litvinenko's death. Putin, they say, had no need to get rid of Litvinenko; the exile was an irrelevant crank. Milton Bearden, a former CIA spy in Moscow, as well as other experienced intelligence hands, agrees it would be nuts for Putin--who has had good relations with British Prime Minister Tony Blair--to order an assassination on British soil of a British citizen who was no more than a pest. Says Bearden: "Take a deep breath and take a look at Putin and say, 'Is he stupid or insane?'"

If not Putin, who might want Litvinenko dead? Plenty. Russian Mafia bosses whose networks he was still prying into, for example, or rogue FSB officers who had been paid to rub him out by those who wanted to hurt Berezovsky. Perhaps the culprit was someone who wanted to frame Putin, or a member of the many factions maneuvering to succeed him when his term expires in 2008. One particularly dark theory making the rounds in Moscow was that Litvinenko organized his own death in a bizarre politically motivated suicide. Julia Svetlichnaja, a Russian postgraduate student who met with Litvinenko several times over the past year, last week described an erratic man who said he was going to blackmail at least one famous Russian oligarch with the many secrets he was collecting--or sell them to newspapers. Yegor Gaidar, a Prime Minister in the early 1990s and now an occasional critic of Putin's, came to the President's assistance last week when describing how he had fallen violently ill from an apparent poisoning in Dublin on the day Litvinenko died. Writing in the Financial Times, Gaidar concluded "that some obvious or hidden adversaries of the Russian authorities stand behind the scenes of this event, those who are interested in further radical deterioration of relations between Russia and the West." His implication was that those same or similar adversaries killed Litvinenko.

Who had the means?

THE POLICE ARE TAKING ALL SUCH CLAIMS with a grain of salt--and turning their attention, rather, to the grains of polonium 210 that are at the center of the case. This is no garden-variety poison: polonium needs a nuclear reactor to cook it up and extremely careful handling. At first, the discovery of the element seemed to hang responsibility on the Kremlin. Russia is a big producer of polonium (although its annual output, less than a hundred grams a year, shows just how rare it is). The element is hard to procure. In the U.S., it takes a government license to buy more than minute quantities, and according to the website of United Nuclear, which sells isotopes for use in research labs, it would take about $1 million, 15,000 purchases of the largest unlicensed amount and some fancy lab work to scrape together a lethal dose. (The British Health Protection Agency says the dose that killed Litvinenko was at least 10 times as high as that needed to kill.)

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