Lucky Lugovoi?

January 30, 2008 | Leave a Comment

It’s hard not to have some liking for Andrei Lugovoi. The affable — and unflappable – ex KGB agent cuts quite a figure with his perma-tan and pistol-toting antics the news networks so love to repeat. Add to this a bored insouciance – often approaching but just stopping short of belligerence — concerning the poisoning case which made him famous, and you have just the sort of snook the British love to see cocked at authority. A degree of respect somewhere closer to grudging than unconditional is, I feel, surreptitiously paid him by many in this isle.

It’s tempting to think this man, who some have fingered as being the root cause of much of the Russian-British ill-will over the past year, is sitting pretty in his newish position as member of the Russian state Duma. But I wonder whether now and again a glimmer of doubt gets under that thick skin of his?

Lugovoi wasn’t even born when the American airman Gary Powers and Soviet spy Rudolf Abel simultaneously received a gentle prod in their backs and set off walking across the misty girders of Berlin’s Glienicke bridge in that celebrated sixties spy-swap. I’ve no particular insight into the more recent KGB induction training but I’d bet Lugovoi will be more than familiar with this most romanticised of cold war episodes – indeed, may well have studied it.

He may also know the old KGB saying that says: ‘If you have a problem with a man then remove the man and you remove the problem.’ I can’t for the life of me find the origin of this phrase but if Lugovoi doesn’t know it, then the man at the pinnacle of Russian power certainly does. Vladimir Putin has but weeks left as President of Russia but, like all powerful men, he has problems and not a few of them involve a man. Take for example Boris Berezovsky – the UK-resident Russian gazillionaire is known as a dissident by some and an oligarch by others. To Vladimir Putin he is, I suspect, no more than a right royal pain in the neck. But what then was poor Alexander Litvinenko? This lowly agitator was surely nothing more than an inconvenience who for his troubles departed this earth in 2006 in a most horrific manner leaving behind a wife and — etched onto the world’s consciousness for years to come — that famous image of his yellowy, death mask.

Now I’m not suggesting for a moment anything as simple and as made-for-TV as a straight Boris for Andrei swap, but I’ll wager that both men, in their darker moments, probably know that their safe havens are founded on the shaky notion that their respective guardians don’t yet want what the other has got badly enough to tilt the status quo.

And it’s a status quo which was until recently hunky dory. However, who can say what priorities a new Russian leader might want to address? Come March, Putin may well be Prime Minister and his close ally could be President.
Naturally some doubt direct links between the FSB’s shadier activities and the Russian head of state and they may be right, but should Lugovoi become more useful as a bargaining chip there is little doubt the relevant moves to cash him in could be made; the protection offered by Lugovoi’s party activities and Russia’s article 6 (prohibiting extradition of Russian nationals), would be no match for an executive determined to extract some thorns from the great bear’s side. Russia is after all a signatory to the European Convention on Extradition – a convenient face-saving getout if ever there was one. I suspect Lugovoi knows this too although his aloofness seems to know no bounds; in a recent interview he was asked what his plans were now that he was a politican in the Duma. His answer was a paragon of
honesty: “I don’t know. I’m not going to lie to you.” In other words, I’m an MP for cover. In the face of such impending upheaval, a politican enjoying the protection Lugovoi does would be better advised at the very least to act grateful.

Playing alongside all this is Britain’s recent spat with Russia concerning its cultural offices and the ever increasing European fears over energy security; the minds of both sides’ intelligence communities will be working considerable overtime. If we’re to believe the Russian secret service is even half competent then the whats? ifs? wheres? and maybes of a myriad outcomes are being spat out of computers as I write. Somewhere in those war games pawns named Lugovoy, Berezovsky and Goldfarb must surely reckon.

Of course it would seem a senseless gesture on the face of it. A Lugovoi in the hands of the British would be prepared to spill all manner of beans to implicate his former masters but then again, as Litvinenko might well ruminate were he able, just how sound is the protection Britain affords — is a Lugovoi in London safer than a Lugovoi in Moscow? The man best placed to answer this question sits in the FSB not in Scotland Yard and besides, in chess they say a sacrifice, no matter how crazy, is merely evidence of the superior thinking of the man offering it.


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