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Litvinenko inquiry in London

Interview: Nicole GoebelJanuary 27, 2015

As the UK inquiry into the death of ex-Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko gets under way in London, Russia analyst Andrew Monaghan of Chatham House tells DW that the affair continues to sour British-Russian relations.

Gedenken an Litwinenko in Moskau
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

What do you expect from the inquiry and why has it taken so long to get off the ground? Was it for legal or political reasons?

I'm not a lawyer, I can't argue for the legal specialities of it, but there are political concerns. It was announced by the British side the year before last that this wasn't going to be pursued in order to assist developing economic and political relations with the Russians. Certainly, that does appear to have had some influence in the decision-making process.

Was the MH17 disaster last year the trigger for the UK to announce the inquiry last July, and is the UK's strategy now to put pressure on Putin, while before it was trying to improve relations?

The first point to make is that really, the point should be the pursuing of justice in the case of Litvinenko. The legal case should not become a political football.

Andrew Monaghan
Andrew Monaghan says the Litvinenko affair has done major damage to UK-Russian relationsImage: Chatham House

The second point is that since Litvinenko was murdered the UK and Russia have had a very difficult relationship. Although there has been an economic relationship there has been hardly any political relationship of any substance…and it's tended to grind to a halt with the war in Ukraine.

When he was foreign secretary, William Hague tried to prevent an inquiry from happening…

The UK has, on previous occasions, sought to minimize the attention given to this, both in terms of an internal security discussion but also in terms of trying to rebuild the relationship with Russia, because the Litvinenko murder has, indeed, had a very deleterious effect on the relationship with Russia.

So, was the announcement to hold the inquiry in the wake of the MH17 disaster a coincidence?

It's an unfortunate coincidence, certainly. It's spectacularly bad timing. It's not clear whether it was deliberate. If it was, it's not likely to lead to anything particularly positive. It's not going to raise any great deal of pressure on the Russians.

The Russians will immediately assume that this is part of a deliberate ploy anyway and will respond in kind.

What is or has been Russia's thinking in this affair?

Since 2007, the Russians have rejected the requests for extradition [of the two main suspects who are Russian] increasingly firmly and rejected the opportunity to help the British in their inquiries. Putin made a number of statements some years ago about the British not being able to just change the Russian constitution to do something they wish to do. I believe he made some observation about it no longer being colonial times.

What comes after the inquiry? How will any potential findings be used by London?

There will be great and rigorous attention paid to this and all sorts of things may emerge from the inquiry, whether it be information or leaks of previous secrets, which may not entirely satisfy anbody and create further problems.

My view on this in terms of Russian-British relations is it's very difficult to see a happy outcome at all at the moment, on the political side.

Can the inquiry solve the case?

I don't think it can. It can give certain indicators, it can make some recommendations, but even those pursuing it have acknowledged the limitations to it. It can't bring, for example, whoever it points the finger to, to justice.

Will Russia cooperate at all do you think?

I'd be very surprised if Russia did anything more than the basic cooperation and that, I suspect, is because they'd view it as spectacularly badly timed that it can't be viewed as anything but a political move. Whether it's coincidence or deliberate, the way it's come out, it looks deliberate.

Andrew Monaghan is a senior research fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at UK think tank Chatham House. He focuses on Russian strategic thinking and planning. He has also worked for the NATO Defense College in Rome.