The widow of an ex-KGB agent who was poisoned by a radioactive isotope in 2006 says Britain’s swift medical and diplomatic response to the recent nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter shows some improvement by British officials.
Skripal’s case has drawn numerous comparisons to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian KGB-officer-turned-British-intelligence-agent and highly public critic of President Vladimir Putin.
Litvinenko died an agonizing death days after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 in a London hotel over decade ago, leaving British doctors struggling to identify the substance that killed him.
Speaking with VOA’s Russian service, Marina Litvinenko, Alexander’s widow, was asked whether British security officials had done enough to prevent — or at least prepare for — another attack.
She said that learning another former Russian spy had mysteriously fallen gravely ill on British soil — Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a bench in the English town of Salisbury last March — came as a shock and “very serious disappointment.”
“But in this case, everything was different. There was no need to explain what was going on,” she said.
When her late husband was first hospitalized in November 2006, doctors initially attributed the poisoning to a severe stomach bug or ingested chemical. Her repeated attempts to explain the rationale of a possible covert assassination attempt, she said, fell on deaf ears.
“The doctors had no idea what we were talking about,” she said. “When we tried to explain that we were not just political refugees, but that [Alexander] had a very serious conflict with a special intelligence agency in Russia, the people acted like we lived on another planet. And not because they didn’t believe us — they just couldn’t comprehend what we were talking about.”
In Skripal’s case, however, “there was no need to explain what was going on,” in part because of his official status with British authorities. Unlike Litvinenko’s late husband, who advised British intelligence in an informal capacity, Skripal, she said, had received full asylum in a spy swap, meaning that security officials and forensic analysts were much better prepared to read the crime scene and outline a probable scenario.
Rapid confirmation of Skripal’s personal background, she said, also prepared medical professionals for the possibility that they would be dealing with a highly exotic — and exceptionally lethal — substance.
“There was really no need to prove who wanted to poison Skripal or why,” she said, adding that although she isn’t aware of any formal mechanisms for safeguarding fugitive spies against future poisoning attempts, “the U.K. has shown that for the most part, it did learn a lesson.”
“Literally a week after Skripal was poisoned, a completely different reaction followed, different from what was happening with our case,” Litvinenko said. “[Prime Minister] Theresa May made a public statement that was quite harsh, but it’s wrong to say that she immediately accused Russia. It wasn’t quite like that. She simply said that there are suspicions, and that it is important that Russia immediately provide evidence that they did not do it. And what did we all see? Angry responses from Russia saying that they had nothing to do with it and that the case does not apply to them in any way.”
As Britain launched a formal probe of the Salisbury chemical attack, which experts traced to a Soviet-era nerve toxin known as Novichok, Russia, she said, refused to discuss the possibility of pooling information, which might have entailed allowing international experts to investigate Russian chemical weapons labs.
“And then there was the international reaction,” said Litvinenko. “The way Britain was immediately supported by the EU and USA; the mass expulsion of diplomats was impressive. Nothing like that happened after my husband was poisoned. Also, the way the U.K. started treating money from Russian investors — that [large foreign investments] are now vetted and treated much more seriously. And this is important to understand … that people who benefit from this [Russian] regime should not be accepted in civilized countries simply as people with money.
“And I’m by no means saying that all rich people are thieves — absolutely not,” she added. “But if we say that this regime is a threat, and these people get big money only because they are close to the regime and not because they are very talented, not because they created their own businesses … these people need to understand that they cannot spend their money — stolen money, if you ask me — in America or in Europe.”
Real estate markets in London, New York and Miami are all under varying levels of scrutiny for the unusually large number of all-cash transactions that can be legally anonymized via offshore shell companies or are frequently traced to wealthy investors from Russia or former Soviet republics.
Russia has vigorously denied having any role in the attacks on British soil, a denial that even family members of both victims support.
In 2012, for example, Walter Litvinenko, father of the dead spy, appeared on Russia’s RT news outlet alongside Andrei Lugovoi, the man Britain accused of poisoning his son, to retract his longstanding opinion that Russian intelligence murdered his son on direct orders from Putin.
“I think [Walter] was used,” Marina Litvinenko told VOA on Friday. “He had just then lost his wife. He was in a difficult financial situation living in exile in Italy. And I think Russian intelligence emphasized [Alexander’s] cooperation with British agents, giving him an excuse to save face, to return to Russia and beg the president’s forgiveness.”
During that same broadcast, which also aired on state-run Channel One, the senior Litvinenko, who served as a doctor in a Soviet-era gulag and now resides in a pensioner’s flat in Moscow, called fugitive Russians in the U.K. “hostages” of Western spy agencies.
Lugovoi, who Russia has long refused to extradite, blamed the 2006 murder on Alexander Goldfarb, a personal friend of the late Litvinenko, whom he described as an undercover CIA officer out to frame Russian operatives.
About a year before the RT broadcast, Lugovoi joined the State Duma representing the Kremlin-friendly Liberal Democrat Party, thereby securing lifetime immunity from domestic prosecution.
Goldfarb recently filed a libel suit in U.S. federal court alleging that both RT and Channel One aired deliberately misleading reports about the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death. The suit claims that RT’s rolling coverage of Skripal’s case, which routinely touches on Litvinenko’s murder, is part of a politically motivated Kremlin TV campaign to deflect blame from the real perpetrators of both attacks.
RT representatives issued a public statement saying they are in the process of reviewing the complaint.
Earlier this year, Viktoria Skripal, niece of the spy poisoned in Salisbury, repeatedly took to the Russian airwaves to express skepticism about Britain’s handling of her uncle’s investigation, suggesting that Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency had been manipulating her cousin Yulia, who had refused offers of assistance from the Russian embassy in London after being poisoned alongside her father.
On July 3, Skripal’s niece appeared on Russian television to announce that her candidacy for Yaroslavl region Duma elections had been endorsed by the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party.
“This is what Russian intelligence agencies still do,” Litvinenko told VOA, explaining that turning family members against each other has a long history in Russia’s spy community.
“They find a person who is easily influenced, who understands the benefits of his or her position,” she said. “Both Viktoria and Walter Alexandrovich were in very difficult financial situations, so this allows them to improve their financial situation. Both now have a salary, and Walter Alexandrovich even has an apartment in Moscow. And Victoria Skripal is going to run for the Yaroslavl Duma,” she added in a sarcastically cheerful tone. “This is a great start for her career.”
This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service.