US adds Putin aide and alleged Litvinenko killers to Russia sanctions list

US adds Putin aide and alleged Litvinenko killers to Russia sanctions list
Former Russian FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko with a copy of his new book before his murder in London in 2006.
By Vladimir Kozlov in Moscow January 10, 2017

In another parting shot at Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, the outgoing US administration on January 9 added Russia’s top investigator, the alleged killers of spy agency defector Alexander Litvinenko, and two others to the sanctions list for human rights abuses.

Litvinenko, an officer of Russia's FSB intelligence service, was fatally poisoned in London in 2006 with a radioactive substance in what a British inquiry said was likely a Kremlin-ordered hit. Following the recent expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the US over their country’s claimed interference in the November elections, fresh attention to the Litvinenko case can complicate US president-elect Donald Trump’s efforts to reset relations with Moscow.

Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, both named as Litvinenko’s presumed assassins in a UK government-ordered inquiry in January 2016, were blacklisted by the US Treasury alongside Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Investigative Committee (IC) and a close aide to President Putin, and two other officials, Stanislav Gordievsky and Gennady Plaksin. The latter pair was implicated in the death of lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison in 2009.

Lugovoi is currently a member of the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russian Parliament, where he was first elected in 2011. The MP reacted to the news of his inclusion in the sanctions list by emphasising his dedication to human rights issues.

“Over the past years I, as an MP of the State Duma, have been involved in lawmaking activity and dealt more with protecting human rights,” TASS quoted him as saying by on January 10.

Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin dismissed the decision as “hysterics of the outgoing administration of President Barack Obama”.

“Most likely, they had commitments before sponsors and lost the elections and now search for those guilty of this defeat,” he added.

Litvinenko died in London on November 23, 2006, days after drinking tea spiked with the radioactive substance polonium-210. The lieutenant-colonel had fled to Britain after accusing the FSB of plotting to assassinate the late tycoon Boris Berezovsky, and went on to become a fierce Kremlin critic, author and consultant for the British intelligence services.

In according with the findings of the British inquiry, his murder was “probably approved” by Putin.

Russia vehemently denied any involvement in Litvinenko’s death and the foreign ministry issued a statement one year ago saying that a “purely criminal case was politicised” during the British investigation.

“More collaborative effort”

Having overshadowed UK-Russian relations for a decade, the Litvinenko case has assumed new importance as a measure of the need for pragmatism in bilateral ties against legal and moral considerations.

In November 2016, British entrepreneur Peter Hambro said that it is time to forget the Litvinenko case and get back to doing business with Russia.

“Lugovoi, Litvinenko all happened a long time ago and should be forgotten,” Hambro said. “We should now be looking at a more collaborative effort.”

As Trump prepares to take office later this month, many in Russia and elsewhere expect that he will start softening the sanctions slapped on Russia in 2014 over Crimea and Ukraine as a prelude to removing them completely.

Trump’s reaction a year ago to the results of the British investigation also seem to reflect his more sympathetic stance towards Putin as an anticipated future partner in key areas like commerce and anti-terrorism.

“Have they found [Putin] guilty? I don't think they’ve found him guilty,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network in January 2016. “They say a lot of things about me that are untrue, too.” He added that “in all fairness to Putin ... the fact is that he hasn’t been convicted of anything”.