Britain has been cozying up to Russian money for years, and a dead spy isn’t going to change that.
- By Peter PomerantsevPeter Pomerantsev is a Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute's Transitions Forum. His writing regularly features in the London Review of Books, the Atlantic, the Financial Times, Foreign Policy and elsewhere, focusing largely, though not exclusively, on 21st century propaganda.
When it comes to getting ahead of the political curve, the British have always fancied themselves clever buggers — or cleverer, at least, than their peers. In the 19th century, when imperialism was the great game, they created the grandest form. When the Cold War was on, they snuggled as close as possible to the United States, ensuring themselves a spot on the front stage of the victory parade in 1991 — and ensuring Margaret Thatcher a place alongside Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the history books.
The present era has been defined by globalization, financial globalization above all, and true to form, Britain has positioned itself in recent years as the global capital for capital. The city of London has become a hub for the world’s money, clean and dirty; London property is now the investment of choice for the world’s leading plutocrats and kleptocrats. Dean Acheson’s 1962 quip that Britain has lost an empire and not found a role is pretty but untrue — the role is evident in the glass skyscrapers and condo buildings now planted across the capital city.
But Britain’s new status as global financial hub comes with its own contradictions — contradictions that have become painfully clear with Thursday’s release of the public inquest into the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London. It concludes that Litvinenko was “probably” assassinated on the direct orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with “prime facie” evidence that the Russian state was involved. So how should Britain behave when the powers whose money it relies on feel so emboldened as to ride roughshod over the United Kingdom’s security?
Litvinenko was a Russian intelligence agent who had received political asylum in the U.K. in 2001, was granted British citizenship, and was helping MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, research the connection between the Russian government, organized crime, and money-laundering networks in Europe — research that led a Spanish prosecutor to call Putin’s Russia a “mafia state.” A few days before flying to Spain to help with the investigation, Litvinenko was murdered with radioactive polonium.
There was no shortage of reasons to suspect the Kremlin was involved. Polonium is a highly rare material, which very few states produce under strict security — Russia is one of the few. Police and journalists quickly followed the polonium trail and killer to Moscow: A former KGB officer called Andrey Lugovoi had met with Litvinenko in London shortly before he fell ill and left the country shortly thereafter. As evidence mounted about Lugovoi’s involvement, the Russian government made him a deputy of parliament, thus granting him immunity.
That the Russian government would respond in stonewalling fashion was unfortunate, but predictable. The British government’s behavior was more surprising, and disappointing. It initially blocked all efforts for a public inquiry, seemingly for fear of jeopardizing its trade ties with Russia.
Those ties are, by all accounts, considerable. BP (formerly British Petroleum) owns nearly 20 percent of Russian state oil company Rosneft, which is controlled by Putin’s close ally Igor Sechin. Russia’s rich, who have invested heavily in the U.K. property market, receive a quarter of the “investor visas” that the U.K. hands out to those who can pay a million pounds for them. Vladimir Ashurkov, a Russian anti-corruption campaigner, claims to have reported multiple cases of senior executives in Russian state companies, such as VTB and Transneft, laundering money through London, but with no follow-up from the U.K. financial security services. “At some point, it becomes a question of political will,” said Ashurkov. Even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a senior British official was filmed entering Downing Street in 2014 with a document saying that the U.K. “should not support for now trade sanctions or close London’s financial centre to Russians.”
In 2012, Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, renewed the call for an investigation into her husband’s death. I met her later that year. She told me she was sick of following the British government’s advice and waiting for diplomatic back channels to extradite the suspects, and had finally decided to act when she saw Prime Minister David Cameron “resetting” relations with Putin after he resumed the Russian presidency. “My husband was murdered. I think the order came from Putin,” she said. “And I want justice.”
Not long thereafter, Foreign Secretary William Hague preemptively submitted a public interest immunity certificate, a move designed to keep the government’s classified files on Litvinenko from being made public. The home secretary then claimed an inquest would incur too many “public expenses.” The lawyers for Litvinenko’s family argued, in reply, that the “British government, like the Russian government, is conspiring to get this inquest closed down in exchange for substantial trade interests which we know Cameron is pursuing.” In 2014, the High Court sided with the lawyers, ruling that the home secretary’s refusal to have an inquiry was not “rational” and legally erroneous. The inquiry was opened later that year, led by Sir Robert Owen.
The final report is a personal victory for Marina Litvinenko and a reward for her persistence. It is also a defeat for the British establishment, some of whom still oppose her search for justice: “The inquest must not sour relations with Moscow,” an editorial in the London Times declared when the inquest was launched. “We have important investments to protect.”
But Marina’s efforts were not just a crusade for truth. She saw herself continuing Alexander’s cause. “When rich Russians began to buy up whole chunks of London, he feared the KGB were starting to infiltrate Britain,” she told me. “He thought the British naive. No one knew where the money was coming from, who was really behind the Russian investors in British companies. He could see how Putin was spreading his power westward, making Europe dependent on Russian energy and dirty cash. The world we had run away from was starting to come here.” Litvinenko had summed up the issue powerfully in an interview he gave police on his deathbed: “I understand the West wants to get gas and oil from Russia … and beliefs can’t be traded for oil and gas … but when a politician is trading he is trading with the sovereignty of his country.”
In principle, Britain should be able to square its dependence on international capital with its traditional ideas of sovereignty, security, and values. Scratch the surface, and the former is intrinsically interconnected with the latter: Foreign money wants to come to the U.K. precisely because it has values — for instance, the rule of law — and decent security. If London becomes a mere butler to the super-rich, prepared to sacrifice its legal system for the sake of cash, it loses its value as a financial safe house: Why put your money in a country where your enemies can bump you off if they can afford to pay off the powers-that-be?
But such long-term thinking is beyond a government trying to bring in as much global money as possible, as fast as possible, in order to balance the budget in the immediate future. 2015 saw the U.K. roll out the red carpet for China, with the government welcoming Chinese investment into British nuclear power. Rights groups and the security ministries lodged protests, but were ignored.
When the Chinese bump off a dissident in London, what will we do? The satirical website “Russia in Your Face” caught the present mood best: It portrays the British Foreign Ministry meekly requesting that Putin carry out assassinations in the U.K. somewhat less conspicuously than has been his habit. The portrait is only as distorted as the U.K.’s current financial role on the global stage.
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