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Russian Media Shrugs Off Litvinenko Report

Former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko died of poisoning in London in 2006. (file photo)
Former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko died of poisoning in London in 2006. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Upon receiving long-awaited news related to the assassination of a former Russian security agent in London, the popular Moscow-based radio station Vesti FM was among the few state media outlets not to bury it.

There were, however, some glaring omissions in its reporting on the findings of a British public inquiry into the 2006 poisoning of Aleksandr Litvinenko.

Vesti FM completely missed the bombshell allegation of the day: that none other than Russian Vladimir Putin had "probably approved" the killing. It also failed to note that British Judge Robert Owen said the poisoning was "probably" part of an "FSB operation," and made no mention of the "probable" role of then-FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev.

In the West, the report was anxiously awaited as an opportunity to bring closure to a case that left a radioactive trail in London, soured relations with Moscow, and prompted accusations of Kremlin involvement.

Even though the British findings gave credence to the allegations, there were signs even before their release that they would receive scant coverage in Russia's state-dominated media, which closely follows the Kremlin line.

On the eve of the report's publication, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in no uncertain terms that the Russian establishment would not be preoccupied with its conclusions.

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"This investigation is under way in Great Britain, and in this case it is not an issue that is interesting for us and on our agenda," Peskov was quoted as saying on January 20.

Switching Gears

In step, state television networks the next day opened their coverage on political unrest in Moldova, the sharp decline of the ruble, and a meeting of the presidential Council of Science and Education.

When the state television channel Vesti did switch gears, it led with a denial from Andrei Lugovoi, the man accused of carrying out the brazen poisoning involving the use of radioactive polonium-210.

Again, no mention of President Putin's alleged complicity. But there was a follow-up statement from Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who denounced the report as "politicized," "biased," and set to "darken the mood" in bilateral relations.

Back on Vesti FM, the official commentary was just getting going.

State Duma lawmaker Leonid Kalashnikov told listeners that the public inquiry was a politically motivated attack by London on Russia. "If it hadn't been this, then it would have been something else," he said, pointing without explanation to the critical response to the jailing of members of the punk group Pussy Riot and to the arrest and death in custody of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Kalashnikov attacked the wording of the report, saying the findings were couched in inconclusive words like "probably" and "possibly."

The radio station then reported that Lugovoi was "dismayed by the lies" in the report, which he called a "theatrical farce."

Federation Council lawmaker Andrei Klimov took the opportunity to float a new conspiracy theory -- that the report was the product of clan wars in British politics, and was initiated by anti-Russian forces trying to sabotage British partnership with the Kremlin over Syria.

"British political life should not be simplified," Klimov warned on Vesti FM. "There are a lot of players there. And these players sometimes compete with one another. Therefore, perhaps the party of war, the hawks, and the Russophobes are trying to take advantage of all their opportunities."

The Perm region representative also compared Litvinenko's killing to the 1963 assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, which he said was erroneously blamed on Moscow amid a Cold War atmosphere.

'Fine British Humor'

Elsewhere in Russian media, parliamentarians widely denounced the British report.

Ivan Melnikov, the deputy speaker of the State Duma, called the report a "humoristic miniature" in comments carried by Interfax.

"I haven't gone into the details particularly, but I've looked at extracts of the report from this [Judge] Robert Owen," he told the news agency. "It reads like a humoristic miniature: it's 'possibly' and 'maybe' from start to finish. Hypotheses and evidence are two different things."

By late afternoon, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democrat Party of Russia, had placed blame for Litvinenko's assassination squarely on Boris Berezovsky, the tycoon, Duma member, and Putin critic who left Russia for the United Kingdom, was subsequently stripped of his assets in Russia, and was found hanging dead at his U.K. home in 2013.

In comments carried by Vesti FM, Zhirinovsky claimed that two months before Berezovksy's death, the embattled tycoon told him that he would withdraw his testimony on the Litvinenko investigation so the case would collapse.

"So here the main organizer is Berezovsky, and he also used all of this to somehow take revenge on Russia," he said.

By day's end, the report even triggered a reaction from Peskov, despite the Kremlin spokesman's previously expressed disinterest. Speaking to reporters in Moscow, he concluded that the findings could most likely be "attributed to fine British humor."

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