Alexander Litvinenko 'thought Putin wasn't up to the job in secret service'
Vladimir Putin was a penpusher who lacked the experience and expertise of hardened KGB officers who had undertaken tough missions in the field, in the opinion of Alexander Litvinenko.
His withering assessment of the future Russian President came after he had met Mr Putin – then the newly appointed head of the country’s secret service – to report to him that a cabal within the service was engaged in a campaign of assassinations and extortion. But Mr Litvinenko, who died of polonium poisoning after fleeing to London, had little confidence that anything would be done, his widow, Marina, told a public inquiry into her husband’s death yesterday.
“Sasha [Alexander] said it was not a productive meeting at all and he didn’t believe there will be any action afterwards,” she said. “Sasha didn’t believe in Putin’s professional skills. He told me that, from the very beginning when he was director, he had never been on the ground. Putin … didn’t really understand his job, like people like Sasha did from fighting against organised crime.”
Mr Litvinenko, a member of the Quick Reaction Force of the KGB and its successor, FSB , had been deployed in the violent former Soviet states in the Caucasus.
His widow, 52, described how he had returned from a hostage rescue operation in Dagestan with frostbite in his feet and hands. He and his comrades were angry about senior officers not looking after men having to work in icy conditions while they kept warm and safe indoors.
On returning to Moscow, some of the team were determined to expose the work of Urpo, a unit which was meant to investigate organised economic crime but was so secret that even people in the FSB hierarchy were unaware of its activities.
The group, Mr Litvinenko told his wife, was out of control. He claimed one of his bosses asked him whether he could kill Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch who was to become an implacable enemy of Mr Putin but was at the time a senior member of Russia’s National Security Council. On another occasion, according to Mrs Litvinenko, her husband was asked to take part in a plot to kidnap a Chechen businessman in Moscow and use the ransom to free Russian soldiers held by the rebels. Police officers guarding the businessman were to be gunned down if necessary, senior FSB officers allegedly ordered.
The meeting with Mr Putin, the new FSB director, was arranged in 1998 by Mr Berezovsky, then on extremely good terms with the future President, in the hope that a change in leadership would usher in reform. This failed to take place and the reason, apart from Mr Putin’s perceived professional failings, was that he may have been compromised while he was deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Mr Litvinenko held. The city was regarded at the time as “the criminal capital of Russia” and he must have been “involved in some crime connections”, Mrs Litvinenko told the inquiry.
After their failure to launch an inquiry, Mr Litvinenko and his comrades held a press conference to publicly air their allegations against the secret service. “Nothing like this had ever happened before in the history of the KGB or the FSB,” said his widow. “It was an extraordinary event.” Mr Putin was said to be furious this had happened on his watch.
The inquiry was told that Mr Berezovsky, by then in exile in England, had helped organise the escape and continued to subsidise the Litvinenko family. Mr Litvinenko died in London in November 2006 after ingesting radioactive isotope polonium-210.
Mr Berezovsky was found hanged at his home in Berkshire in March 2013. A coroner recorded an open verdict.