(Note: opinions expressed are mine – except for official allegations. I have no wish to start an international incident all on my own!)
OK – you might have heard something about UK & Russia going head to head over ping-pong and turning it into a diplomatic incident. Not entirely accurate.
UK and Russia are going head to head over the extradition of an ex-KGB agent to stand trial in the UK. This ex-agent allegedly put hundreds, if not thousands, of Brits at risk by trotting a highly radioactive compound (polonium-210) around London before dropping it in the tea of a fellow ex-KGB agent, who was now a UK Citizen. Alexander Litvinenko died a truly horrible death in November 06, wasting away after 23 days of painful and terrible radiation poisoning, knowing that he was dying and that there was no cure. Indeed it took doctors a good long while to actually figure out what he’d been poisoned with. The day after he died it came out that he had definitely been poisoned with radioactive material and that Litvinenko suspected that those high in Russian government were involved.
And before you can say cold war, ta-dah! International incident!
Highly radioactive elements were discovered in different locations in London (in a hotel, a sushi bar and at Litvinenko’s home) and lots of people were suddenly at risk from radiation poisoning. Litvinenko made a statement on his last day on earth, read after his death:-
In it he accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of involvement in his death and says his killer was “barbaric and ruthless”.
Protest from around the world “will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life,” he said.
Friend Andrei Nekrasov says that just hours before Mr Litvinenko fell unconscious, he told him: “The bastards got me but they won’t get everybody.”
In January this year…
The Health Protection Agency reveals that 120 of the 596 people tested for polonium-210 showed traces of radiation.
But it says just 13 of those who tested positive following Mr Litvinenko’s death are deemed to have a health risk, and that the long-term risk is very small.
The agency says it has identified 450 people worldwide who may have been affected by radiation, and is working with 48 different countries on the matter.
Alexander Gusak, a former head of the FSB (the successor of the KGB) says Mr Litvinenko was a “direct traitor” for betraying other Russian agents to British intelligence.
He told BBC’s Newsnight show that in Soviet times Mr Litvinenko would have been sentenced to death, and under current law would face up to 20 years in prison for treason.
Mr Gusak says one of the agents who believed he had been exposed by Mr Litvinenko offered to assassinate the former spy.
So what seemed to have started as a nice tidy little murder, before Litvinenko could spill any of his ex-KGB beans, is a big nasty matter affecting 48 countries and a hell of a lot of people. Someone must have been showing off – Litvinenko could have just as easily been killed by bullet, cyanide, hell they could’ve fiddled with his boiler and carbon monoxo-dized him. Someone must’ve got a slap around the ear for such a big fuck-up. But Litvinenko was now a British Citizen, and they must have known what sort of shit-storm would come down around them – let alone to bring such nasty radioactive material onto British soil …
But now, 6 months later, after sifting through acres of evidence and digging through dirt from in the UK and abroad, the Crown Prosecution Service are ready to charge former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi with his death and seek his extradition from Russia. Russia refuse to extradite, saying the Russian Constitution does’t permit it, but offer to try Lugovoi in Russia for the crimes. UK say (and I’m paraphrasing and hyopthetising, of course) ‘no way, since it’s possible a trial will never happen, let alone the truth of the matter ever come out, and that this isn’t just about Litvinenko but about British citizens being poisoned by Russia,’ and start ejecting Russian diplomats.
And now you’re all caught up. With me so far? (If you want to catch up more, check the BBC’s timeline).
Russia’s turn now (and here comes the ping-pong bit)…
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov said: “We don’t want to be provoked into a ping-pong game, although of course the Russian side will provide a necessary response.”
And now the world holds it’s breath about what exactly a necessary response might be.
Russia have been waving their hands in the air and digging their heels in a few times over the last year or so – and I’m wondering if they don’t feel their slice of the international-respect-pie is big enough. Considering the chummy-ness of UK and USA over recent years, the world focus hasn’t really been on Russia, and maybe they’re a bit upset. Maybe the insular Soviet attitute continues, that Russian problems have Russian solutions and are no concern of anyone else.
Whichever way it is, this is a scary situation. Scary enough that someone could be killed by an obscure radioactive isotope in central London, scarier still that spies are involved. Secrecy issues, double-agents, traitors and patriots. This could turn nasty really quickly. UK/Russian relations and, by default, Russia/Rest of the world relations could be irreparably damaged.
Visa restrictions and reviews are now being discussed on both sides, and still Russia has made no response to their diplomats being ejected from UK… Meanwhile Russia are asking for extradition of 21 people living in the UK who are wanted for crimes in Russia ranging from embezzelment to terrorism – UK refuse to extradite. I can see Russia’s point – it does seem like a bit of a double standard. And I don’t know why the UK Govt refused to extradite, I can only speculate.
Please tread carefully, Mr Brown. Please tread carefully Mr Putin. This situation needs a solution and you two are responsible for the effect on millions of lives.