A BITTER diplomatic row has broken out between the UK and Russia after a public inquiry concluded that the murder of ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 was “probably” approved by president Vladimir Putin.
David Cameron insisted that Britain is “toughening” up its response to Russia following the “state sponsored murder” of the 43-year-old dissident with radioactive polonium in London.
The Prime Minister said the UK would deal with Russia with “clear eyes and a very cold heart” following publication of Sir Robert Owen’s report, which found the Russian premier was likely to have signed off on Mr Litvinenko’s poisoning.
Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko has branded the inquiry a “whitewash” and said: “This gross provocation of the British authorities cannot help hurting our bilateral relations.”
Speaking in Davos, Mr Cameron described the murder as “absolutely appalling” but said the inquiry report confirms what “we have always believed” had happened.
The Litvinenko family’s barrister warned it would be “craven” if the Prime Minister avoided substantial reprisals for “nuclear terrorism” due to diplomatic considerations in Syria and Ukraine.
Mr Cameron said previous decisions to expel Russian diplomats, issue arrest warrants and cut co-operation with intelligence agencies must continue and highlighted fresh asset freezes imposed yesterday on the two men responsible for the murder – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun.
He added: “We must now read the report in its entirety and take everything into account but be in no doubt, this shocking event was reacted to years ago when it happened and we are toughening our action again today.”
Alexander Litvinenko’s widow Marina has called on Mr Cameron to impose economic sanctions and travel bans on Mr Putin. She also said she wanted to see the immediate expulsion of all Russian intelligence operatives based at the London embassy.
In a 300-page report, Sir Robert said Lugovoi and Kovtun were probably acting under the direction of Moscow’s FSB intelligence service when they laced Mr Litvinenko’s tea with polonium at the Millennium Hotel in London’s Mayfair.
Singling out then-FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev alongside Mr Putin, the former judge wrote: “Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me, I find that the FSB operation to kill Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by president Putin.”
Sir Robert pointed to Mr Litvinenko’s work for British intelligence, criticism of the FSB and Mr Putin, and his association with other dissidents such as Boris Berezovsky as likely motives for the assassination.
There was also “undoubtedly a personal dimension to the antagonism” between Mr Putin and Mr Litvinenko.
Russia’s foreign ministry said the inquiry was not impartial and claimed the conclusions had been pre-determined.
Spokeswoman Maria Zhakarova said: “We regret that a purely criminal case has been politicised and has darkened the general atmosphere of bilateral relations.”
Downing Street strongly rejected an assertion from Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov that the report was an example of “subtle British humour”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman said: “I think the murder of someone here in Britain and the pain and torment that that has caused for his wife and family and an independent inquiry like this with such serious conclusions, is far from that.”
She added the actions described in the report were “not a way for a state to behave, especially not a permanent member of the United Nations security council” and were an “unacceptable breach of international law”.
A £2.2 million inquiry into former KGB agent Litvinenko’s death was finally held last year following a long battle by his widow.
Tensions between her husband and the Russian president dated back to their only face-to-face meeting in 1998, when Mr Putin was head of the FSB and Mr Litvinenko wanted him to bring in reforms.
The dissident made “repeated highly personal attacks” on the Russian leader after seeking asylum in the UK in 2000, including an allegation of paedophilia in July 2006.
Sir Robert wrote: “I am satisfied that, in general terms, members of the Putin administration, including the president himself and the FSB, had motives for taking action against Litvinenko, including killing him, in late 2006.”
Lugovoi and Kovtun are both wanted by UK authorities but Russia has refused to extradite them.
The pair are said to have tried to poison Mr Litvinenko at a meeting a fortnight before he ingested the fatal dose.