Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Russian Defector May Prove a Disappointment

The sensational defection of a former FSB officer is unlikely to furnish Western intelligence services with anything more than speculation and hearsay
By Mikhail Ivanov

"Contrary to expectations, the former Federal Security Service agent [Alexander Litvinenko] who fled to London saying he feared for his life will not release a statement or hold a news conference for at least a week", wrote the Moscow Times on November 4, quoting the London-based PR agency, Clear, which represents the Russian defector.


Since then, the expectant public has been left in suspense, Litvinenko has billed himself as the man who can reveal the truth behind the September 1999 apartment bombings - atrocities which some have blamed on the FSB. He also claims to have damning information about a secret plot to assassinate the media mogul Boris Berezovsky - allegations he made during a sensational TV press conference in 1998.


But the days slip by and still there have been no startling revelations. And probably the public will wait in vain because it is becoming increasingly clear - even to Clear itself -- that we are dealing with what the Russians call a "storm in a glass of kefir".


Litvinenko's "clandestine" escape from the Turkish health resort of Antalya this month had all the hallmarks of a cheap spy thriller.


According to the Moscow Times, the would-be defector initially contacted Alexander Goldfarb - the Moscow representative of the Public Health Research Institute of New York. Goldfarb, a US citizen, flew down to Antalya and offered to accompany Litvinenko and his family to London, acting as an interpreter until their arrival at Heathrow airport. Here Litvinenko approached a British policeman and asked for political asylum.


Of course, much of the speculation surrounding Litvinenko is based on assumptions rather than facts. The Moscow Times, for example, happily comments, "Reports (on the apartment bombings) in several Russian and Western newspapers also cast suspicion on the FSB". However, the speculators have apparently failed to examine the latest sequence of events through the prism of common sense.


According to the reports, Goldfarb was able to drop everything and fly down to Turkey just "hours after receiving [Litvinenko's] call". Who financed the trip? His "New-York based research institute" - or someone else? What were Goldfarb's motives anyway - was he prompted by human compassion or purely scientific concerns?


The Moscow Times glibly tells us that "despite being only barely acquainted with the former FSB officer, Goldfarb volunteered to help". What does that actually mean? Did they get to know each other when Litvinenko was in the FSB or after he was dismissed from the service and went to work as Berezovsky's aide? Perhaps they once had a couple of drinks together in an Intourist hotel?


Strangest of all, how did the FSB let Litvinenko slip through their fingers - especially if, as the Moscow Times reminds us, he was facing criminal charges of using undue force to extort confessions at the time of his defection? How did he make his way to Turkey - in the hold of a petrol tanker, perhaps, or disguised as a Russian "shuttle-trader" buying fur-coats in the Antalyan markets?


Shortly after Litvinenko's arrival in London, Berezovsky described his allegations of FSB persecution as "logical". But, if the FSB had plans to abduct Litvinenko, why were they so slow to don their traditional cloaks and daggers? Even if the days are long gone when a wagging tongue could be conveniently silenced in the cellars of the Lubyanka prison. But perhaps the former FSB colonel is the "elusive John" from the popular Russian joke, who is elusive because "who the hell would want to search for him anyway?"


We can surmise that Litvinenko chose London because he had a high opinion of the British secret services - which were recently praised by the KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky in an interview with NTV. Unfortunately, he probably doesn't have much to offer his debriefing team. Allegations of the Berezovsky murder plot date back to 1998 and, by now, even the most salacious "details" have passed their sell-by date.


And how much could Litvinenko really know about the Moscow apartment bombings in 1999? At best, his information must be based on hearsay from former colleagues at the FSB whom Litvinenko would be hard-pushed to identify. After his scandalous press-conference in 1998, it is hardly likely that the disgraced FSB officer would have been party to any plans to stage terrorist atrocities in a bid to turn the public opinion against the Chechen rebels. Allegations which, I hasten to add, have never been supported by a shred of hard evidence.


Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.


More IWPR's Global Voices