British Prime Minister Theresa May, who has protested the attempted assassination of a former Russian double agent in England earlier this month, promised two years ago to “take every step” to prevent such attacks.
The promise came in a letter to the widow of a former Russian intelligence officer, Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in England in 2006. Ten years later, a British government inquiry concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “probably” behind the attack on Litvinenko, who had defected to the West in 2000 and become a whistleblower on corruption in the Kremlin. May, who was British home secretary at the time, wrote Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, that the government would “take every step to protect the U.K. and its people from such a crime ever being repeated.”
Marina Litvinenko shared a redacted version of the letter with Yahoo News during an interview with Yahoo News Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff and Yahoo News Editor in Chief Dan Klaidman for the latest episode of their weekly podcast,“Skullduggery.”
“We have also made clear to Russia our profound concerns in relation to the Inquiry’s finding of probable Russian state involvement, and specifically the role of the [Russian security agency] FSB in your husband’s death,” May wrote. “This has been done at Ministerial and senior diplomatic levels and, I can assure you, will be done repeatedly and directly.”
May added that while “we have to have some form of relationship with Russia, it is guarded and heavily conditioned.”
“As the Prime Minister [David Cameron] put it, ‘We do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart,’” she wrote.
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The revelation of May’s letter to Litvinenko’s widow came a day after the British government announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the country in response to the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England. May, now prime minister, also said that no members of the royal family will attend the upcoming World Cup in Russia.
Last week, Sergei Skripal, a retired Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia, collapsed in a public street in Salisbury in western England. They remain in critical condition. British counterterrorism officials said that a military-grade nerve agent was used in the attack. The attempted assassination quickly drew comparisons to Litvinenko’s 2006 poisoning by radioactive polonium.
Both substances are not normally used by criminal gangs or terrorist groups, but are produced in by government-controlled laboratories. In the case of Skripal, the poison was Novichok, a nerve agent first developed in the late 1980s as part of a Soviet chemical weapons program. Polonium, the poison slipped into Litvinenko’s teapot at a London hotel, is a highly radioactive substance almost exclusively under the control of Russia’s nuclear agency.
On Friday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said it was “overwhelmingly likely” Putin ordered the nerve agent attack on Skripal.
Marina Litvinenko told Yahoo News that she has no doubt Putin was behind her husband’s assassination, and that the latest poisoning has all the hallmarks of a Kremlin-ordered attack.
Earlier this week, May told British lawmakers that either Putin was directly behind the attack on Skripal, or that Moscow “lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.” May demanded an explanation from Moscow, which denied any involvement in the attack on Skripal and his daughter.
British lawmakers have also called for an investigation into 14 “suspicious” deaths some say may have been state-sponsored.
At the White House Thursday, President Trump said “it certainly looks like the Russians were behind” the attack on Skripal.
“We’re taking it very seriously, as, I think, are many others,” Trump said.
The president has long been criticized for his reluctance to publicly condemn Putin. (Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The president had signed off on the sanctions last fall but for months resisted calls from lawmakers to specify what they were.)
Marina Litvinenko, who was critical of the British government’s response in the wake of her husband’s death, said she would like to see the U.K. put financial pressure on Russia through its Criminal Finances Bill — similar to the U.S.’s Magnitsky Act — which allows governments to freeze the assets of international human rights violators.
Skripal was convicted in 2006 of passing Russian secrets to MI6, the British spy agency. He has been living in the U.K. for the past eight years after being sent there in an exchange of prisoners between Russia and the West.
“Sacha did a very serious investigation of people very close to Putin,” Marina Litvinenko said, referring to her husband, adding that he warned her before his death that his life could be in danger. “After what happened with my husband, after what happened with [the annexation] of Ukraine, after what happened to Sergei Skripal and his daughter, you have to understand, there are not rules for these people.”
Read May’s redacted letter to Marina Litvinenko below:
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