Lugovoi and Kovtun: Litvinenko’s accused polonium poisoners
One a former KGB agent and the other a shady businessman: Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun were accused Thursday of murdering ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko in London with radioactive tea most likely on orders from the Kremlin.
British police had long ago issued warrants for the Russian duo as the murderers of former FSB security agent Litvinenko with the rare isotope polonium in an upscale hotel in 2006.
While both insist they are innocent, they no longer leave their homeland for fear of arrest.
In conclusions released on Thursday, a British inquiry went much further. It said the pair had likely carried out the hit under the instruction of Russian security services in a killing “probably approved” by President Vladimir Putin and his spy chief.
Lugovoi, 49, and Kovtun who is a year older, have a relationship dating back four decades, living in the same apartment block as children, the inquiry found, citing interviews and a witness statement from Kovtun.
Both men come from military families and while Lugovoi joined the KGB’s ninth directorate, responsible for guarding high-profile officials, his friend Kovtun went into the army.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union Lugovoi joined a successor state security organisation before leaving to go into business in the security sector and even working briefly for billionaire arch-Putin foe Boris Berezovsky.
The inquiry was given evidence he served a 15-month jail term in Moscow from 2001 to 2002 but the report questions this, suggesting he may have been recruited as an FSB agent and the jail term could be a cover-story to “improve his credentials” with opposition targets.
Lugovoi knew Litvinenko in Russia before the latter fled to the UK in 2000, but the two reportedly lost contact until 2004.
Two years later, Lugovoi headed to London with Kovtun in tow and, the British inquiry said, ended up lacing Litvinenko’s tea with polonium at a meeting in a central London hotel.
Yet the pair allegedly left a radioactive trail back to Moscow that led investigators to suspect their guilt. Scientists found radiation contamination near the seats the men sat in for their flight back to Russia.
In the wake of Litvinenko’s death, Lugovoi became a public figure, getting elected as an MP for the pro-Kremlin Liberal Democratic Party of Russia in 2007 and even presenting a series on Russian and Soviet traitors on state television.
In 2013 he married a 23-year-old student Ksenia, in a ceremony reported in Russian media, with his wife posting snaps of their holidays on Instagram.
In March last year he was awarded a state honour by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for “his great contribution to the development of the Russian parliamentary system and his active role in lawmaking.”
– Impractical drinker –
Much less is known about Kovtun, who gave a witness statement to the British inquiry. Kovtun is not a public figure in Russia and rarely talks to media.
In his witness statement, Kovtun said he first met Lugovoi in 1978 or 1979. “We lived in the same building where my family and his family were given flats at the same time.”
Both went to the same military college and were on “friendly terms,” Kovtun said. He joined the Soviet army and went abroad, serving in then Czechoslovakia and East Germany.
He married in Germany and his now ex-wife gave evidence that after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1992 he deserted on hearing his unit was to be sent to Chechnya.
They both claimed asylum in Germany, where Kovtun lived in Hamburg until 2003.
His two ex-wives gave evidence saying he had dreamed of becoming a porn star and describing him as charming and impractical and a heavy drinker who lived off benefits and occasional manual work, making his apparent success in business later hard to account for.
Then Kovtun moved back to Russia, saying he and Lugovoi reignited their relationship, working together on corporate security and holidayed together.
By the time they went to London together in 2006, Kovtun in his visa application described himself as a wealthy company director.
The inquiry said there was “no evidence” of Kovtun being wealthy, he did not have a credit card and spoke English poorly.
Kovtun, before making his trip to London, allegedly asked a friend from Hamburg about a cook Kovtun wanted to administer a poison to Litvinenko, the inquiry said.
After the poisoning, Lugovoi and Kovtun underwent treatment together at the same Moscow hospital for contamination with Polonium and opened a restaurant together, but have not seen each other since 2009, Kovtun said.
Since then, “a wall of protection was built around Lugovoi and Kovtun,” said Robert Service, a Russian history expert at Oxford University, in testimony to the inquiry.
He added that their career successes show “high-level political approval.”