The report of the public inquiry in the United Kingdom about the death in London of a former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko will further complicate Russia’s ties with the West. The report ruled that Litvinenko (who fled to the UK in 2000) was killed in 2006 after being poisoned by Russian intelligence agency FSB in an operation which was “probably approved” by President Vladimir Putin. This has sparked a war of words with UK home secretary Theresa May calling it a “blatant, unacceptable breach” of international law while Moscow responded saying the inquiry was “politically motivated and highly opaque, and prepared with a pre-determined ‘correct’ result in mind”.
The inquiry’s findings come at a time when the UK and the West are attempting to establish a durable, working equation with Moscow after falling out over issues such as Nato’s eastward expansion and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its alleged aid to rebels in eastern Ukraine. Mistrust between establishments dates to the Cold War but both sides also recognise the need to deal with each other as Russia is a P5 power with a say in global institutions and influence in parts of the world, particularly in West Asia. As a result, Russia played a major role in brokering the P5+1 deal with Iran and is also a key factor in Syria, where it is backing President Bashar al-Assad with weapons and advisers, much to the chagrin of the West.
The Litvinenko affair adds a new dimension and forces UK Prime Minister David Cameron to choose between domestic constituents who seek firm action on Mr Putin and the foreign policy imperative of seeking greater accommodation with Moscow. It won’t be easy, as the sensational nature of Litvinenko’s death, with polonium being put in his tea on the anniversary of his arrival in the UK, will exert pressure on Whitehall. There have been arguments for further sanctions targeting Mr Putin’s close associates. That in theory is a useful bargaining chip to shape Russia’s approach on Syria but also a risky approach given Mr Putin’s tendency to react sharply to pressure tactics.