Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin’s eager army of defenders—poor weak thing that it must be, to need such support—have rushed to trash the enquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko that concluded it was “probably” done at Putin’s behest. In the process, equally unsurprisingly, they have twisted the facts and willfully misrepresented the truth, so here is a quick corrective.
It was a “farce,” an “absurd show trial,” and its comprehensive report is “worthless,” a piece of “contemporary fiction, particularly the pulp-thriller genre.” All the usual suspects have rushed forward to leap into the fray, armed with passion and vitriol but, let’s be honest, very little accuracy.
1. “Probably” Is Not A Cop-Out
When Sir Robert Owen said that “the FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by [then-FSB director] Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin,” he was not making some wild statement, nor was he suggesting that there was just a 51% chance that this was the case. Rather, this was a carefully-judged use of a term used in law for findings meeting the civil standard of proof, the balance of probabilities. Barring a copy of a death warrant signed by Putin or a witness saying Patrushev said “kill Litvinenko”—and I think it is fair to say that with no powers to arrest, investigate, interrogate or even compel witness in Russia this would be a tad hard to come across—then any conscientious judge could do no other.
But it nonetheless represents the strongest possible terms he could use. In effect, he was saying “if we had been able to launch the necessary kind of investigation, then I believe this is what we could have been able to prove.”
2. This Was Not A Trial
All the frothy anger at a “show trial” (irony is a foreign land to the most rabid Russophiles) and the extent to which helpless, hapless Vladimir Putin was condemned without benefit of a jury or the right to defend himself, misses the point. Had Putin, Patrushev and the like been in the dock, facing prison if found guilty, then it would have entirely right and proper for them to have such protections. Their guilt would also have had to have been proven not by “balance of probabilities” but “beyond reasonable doubt.”
But they weren’t, and this wasn’t. Rather, it was a public inquiry established to identify the truths and likelihoods of the assassination. Were Lugovoi or Kovtun (of whom Sir Robert said “I am sure that Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun placed the polonium 210 in the teapot at the Pine Bar on 1 November 2006. I am sure that they did this with the intention of poisoning Mr Litvinenko”) incautiously to come to the UK tomorrow, they would have to be tried from scratch. So accusing the inquiry of not following all the norms of a fair trial makes no sense…unless you’re just looking for mud to throw.
3. There Was Lots of Secret Evidence
One of the features of this inquiry was the extent to which Sir Robert was briefed by spook types on their spooky information, all in secret. Now, this is on one level an undoubted problem for those of us trying to reach a balanced assessment of the case, not least because spooky does not always equal accurate. As someone who a lot time ago was for a while a consumer of classified material, I know that much is fascinating, much is useful, and much is accurate…but only relatively little is all three. What’s more, the mere presence of a titillating “Secret” stamp on a document or briefing, let alone “Top Secret,” tends to give the contents a spurious extra significance and weight. On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of issue in which classified intelligence tends to excel, and British intelligence is still a serious player in the world spy games.
What this does mean is that we outsiders are only seeing a certain proportion of the evidence on which Sir Robert was able to draw. It may be that, were we privy to the same, we would draw different conclusions. It’s also legitimate to feel uncomfortable about an inquiry which does draw on materials not in the public view. But don’t try and pretend that there was not such extra data, and simply to assert that none of the evidence is enough to fit the verdict.
4. This Was Not A British Government Provocation
Before anyone decides that this was a dirty tricks operation emanating from Whitehall, don’t forget the years-long campaign the British government waged to avoid such an enquiry. Citing everything from diplomatic complications to the danger of revealing sensitive intelligence, it twisted and turned, stonewalled and filibustered in the hope the issue would go away.
And then, when the inquiry did take place and deliver what was the wholly-predictable verdict, the British government was equally unready to act on it. So far there have been stern words but minimal actions, such that the government has come in for considerable public criticism. Of course, there is not much that can be done in the current circumstances that would be appropriate, quick and meaningful (there are longer-term measures, especially on Russian money coming into the UK, but in many ways that’s another story, one having little direct connection to this case). So the government itself has emerged from this affair with little credit, which hardly suggests that this was its secret plan all along.
Sometimes, most of the time actually, things really are what they seem. There is no deep conspiracy, no secret agenda, no Illuminati or lizard people pulling the strings. A combination of an indefatigable wife, a series of determined backers and allies, and a legal system that in the main does still uphold basic issues of truth and justice (oh, and those critics of the Owen inquiry might want to take a look at the Russian legal system before they get too carried away) led to an inquiry that embarrassed both the Kremlin and Whitehall. Whether it will lead to anything greater is questionable, but it provides a degree of closure and certainty on this case.
To be sure, it is entirely right and fair to question and critique the outcome and the evidence. For example, Litvinenko’s own claims that he was planning on engaging in blackmail deserved, I felt, more attention, not least as the kind of person he apparently had in mind (quite who it was never emerged, and may well not be known) might well be the kind of person either able to arrange a hit or else encourage the Kremlin in that direction. But that is the essence of such an inquiry and an open justice system. Now let’s watch the Nemtsov murder trial, and see if the Owen inquiry critics give it anything like the same critical scrutiny. Somehow, I suspect not.