From Russia, With Polonium

Thursday, December 14, 2006

IT'S STILL not known how the former Russian KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko came to ingest the deadly dose of polonium-210 that killed him in London last month. But thanks to the radioactive trail left behind by the isotope, some important conclusions about the case are now possible.

First, the polonium was smuggled into Britain from Russia, where most of the known global supply of the intensely toxic substance is produced. Second, the dose was almost certainly carried by one or both of the former Russian security operatives -- one of them also a KGB alumnus -- whom Mr. Litvinenko met at a London hotel Nov. 1. Finally, the government of Vladimir Putin is making it difficult for British and German investigators to question the suspects, who are now sequestered in Moscow hospitals.

Does this mean that Mr. Putin or the FSB agency -- successor to the KGB -- is responsible for the death of Mr. Litvinenko? Not necessarily: It's conceivable, as Russian and some Western investigators have lately begun suggesting, that he was a victim of a botched attempt to smuggle nuclear materials out of Russia for some other purpose. Still, Mr. Litvinenko is one of a number of opponents of Mr. Putin who have fallen victim to poisonings in the past several years; he himself charged that the FSB maintained a poisons laboratory, and he accused Mr. Putin of ordering his assassination. The Russian president retorted that enemies based abroad are staging operations to discredit him. But why, then, did the instrument of Mr. Litvinenko's death come from Moscow? And why are Russian authorities shielding the two men implicated in the smuggling?

Mr. Litvinenko's case, like that of the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, may never be solved. But what is already known should cause Western governments, including the Bush administration, to insist on some answers from Mr. Putin. How did a toxic dose of polonium, a substance reportedly produced and held by only three Russian government entities and one private company, come into the hands of people who could smuggle it into Britain? Polonium can be used not only to poison someone; it can trigger a nuclear weapon or fuel a "dirty bomb" that could wreak havoc in a major city. The leakage of such materials is a serious threat -- and not just to enemies of Mr. Putin.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company