A British inquiry has concluded that the Russian government was behind the 2006 poisoning death of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko and that President Vladimir Putin "probably approved" the killing.
The findings, issued on January 21, said that there is a "strong probability" that it was carried out by Russian citizens Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi acting under orders from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).
British investigators concluded that Litvinenko, 44, had ingested radioactive polonium-210 while drinking tea in a luxury London hotel with Kovtun and Lugovoi. He died in a London hospital three weeks later, on November 23, 2006.
Traces of polonium were found at sites across London where Kovtun and Lugovoi had been, including offices, hotels, and a soccer stadium, as well as passenger jets. Polonium-210 is an extremely expensive substance that is only produced in a handful of top-security nuclear facilities around the world.
Russia has refused to extradite them, and Lugovoi has held a seat in the Russian parliament since 2007.
Shortly after the report was issued, British Home Secretary Theresa May announced an assets freeze for Kovtun and Lugovoi. She said Britain has written to its NATO and European Union partners with a request to adopt a joint policy to prevent similar killings in the future.
May added that the Russian ambassador would be summoned to hear London's complaints about Moscow's lack of cooperation in the investigation. She said the report's conclusions are "deeply disturbing" and describe a "blatant and unacceptable breach of international law and civilized behavior."
Russia's Foreign Ministry responded by calling the British inquiry "opaque" and "politically motivated," adding that Moscow will have a more complete reaction after it studies the 300-page report.
Russia's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Aleksandr Yakovenko, was summoned by the British government to hear London's complaints about Moscow's lack of cooperation with the investigation. Yakovenko issued a statement saying that "it is absolutely unacceptable" that the report implicates the Russian government in Litvinenko's killing.
"This gross provocation [by] the British authorities cannot help hurting our bilateral relations," the statement said.
Litvinenko's widow, Marina Litvinenko, immediately told reporters she was "very pleased" with the report, saying it vindicated her husband's deathbed assertion that Putin ordered his killing.
She called on the British government to impose "targeted economic sanctions and travel bans against named individuals…including Mr. Putin."
Russian news agencies quoted Lugovoi, a former KGB bodyguard who is now a member of the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, as saying the accusations against him are "pathetic" and "nonsense."
Kovtun also denied any involvement and said he is awaiting the conclusions of a Russian investigation into the killing. "It seems to me that Russia's investigation knows more than the British one," Kovtun was quoted by state-run Russian news agency TASS.
The report by British judge Robert Owen also named Nikolai Patrushev, a close Putin ally who was director of the FSB from 1999 to 2008, as having "probably approved" the killing. Patrushev is now secretary of Putin’s Security Council.
"I am sure that Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun were acting under the direction of others when they poisoned Mr. Litvinenko," Owen wrote in the report. "The FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev and also by President Putin."
Moscow has rejected past accusations of involvement in Litvinenko's death and has dismissed the public inquiry as politically motivated. An unidentified Russian law-enforcement source told the Interfax news agency that Russia will not turn Lukovoi or Kovtun over to the U.K. for prosecution. The Owen report is "politically motivated," the source was quoted as saying.
A Kremlin spokesman said on January 20 that the inquiry was "not among the issues of interest" to Putin.
The Guardian reported on January 21 that British diplomats were urging Prime Minister David Cameron not to intensify sanctions against Russia in order to avoid a further deterioration of already badly strained relations.
Litvinenko colleague and co-author Aleksandr Goldfarb, who lives in London, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the Owen probe was exhaustive.
"As for its objectivity, the British system is set up in such a way that it is practically impossible to imagine any political pressure on the court," Goldfarb said, "even though the fact that the British government did not want this investigation and did everything to block it has been well-reported."
Goldfarb added that British sanctions over the matter could well be expanded.
"[London] could introduce sanctions against anyone who, in the court's view, was connected to this murder," he said. "For example, if the [polonium-210] was produced at a facility run by [Russian state nuclear agency] Rosatom, then its leadership or the nuclear center at Sarov, the former Arzamas-16, must be included in sanctions."
Litvinenko had worked for the main successor agency to the KGB, the Federal Security Service (FSB), before moving to Britain and becoming an outspoken critic of Putin.
Marina Litvinenko told Owen's inquiry that her husband was a loyal intelligence agent who grew disillusioned with Russia's 1990s war in Chechnya. He was also disillusioned by what he saw as corruption within the FSB.
At the time of his death, Litvinenko was reportedly working for MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service.
His death, and the resulting investigation, sent relations between London and Moscow to lows not seen since the Cold War and damaged Putin’s reputation in the West.
The inquiry results come at a time when the Kremlin's ties with the European Union and the United States have suffered further damage due to Russia’s takeover of Crimea in March 2014 and its support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
The EU and United States have imposed sanctions on Russia and on members of Putin’s circle in response to Russia’s interference in Ukraine.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, AP, AFP, and Reuters.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.