Litvinenko 'didn't know any secrets', Putin says
President Vladimir Putin has taken off the diplomatic gloves tocontemptuously dismiss the murdered former intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko as insignificant, claiming that the dead man knew no secrets.
Addressing more than 1,000 journalists in the Kremlin during his annual press conference, Mr Putin made his first public comments about a man who, on his death bed, accused the Russian leader of his own murder.
Litvinenko's friends in London allege that he was poisoned on the Kremlin's orders with radioactive polonium-210, a horrific form of retribution for his outspoken criticism of Mr Putin. Until now, the Russian leader has confined himself to denying Moscow had a role in the unsolved killing in November.
But yesterday he attacked Litvinenko's character in a statement calculated to convince the world that the Kremlin considered Litvinenko "small fry" and would not, therefore, have ordered his murder.
"He didn't know any secrets," insisted Mr Putin. "Before being fired from the Federal Security Service [FSB], Litvinenko served in the convoy troops and had no access to state secrets."
Mr Putin went on to paint a picture of a man who had tried to exaggerate his own importance. "[Litvinenko] was prosecuted for abuse of power, in particular for beating up detainees when he was a security officer, and for stealing explosives."
Mr Putin also tried to debunk the idea that he was forced to flee to Britain in 2000 in fear of his life. "As far as I know, he received a three-year suspended sentence, so there was no need for him to flee."
In life, Litvinenko's greatest act of defiance was to publish a book in which he alleged that the FSB had masterminded a bombing campaign of Russian apartment blocks, to create a pretext to launch the second Chechen war in 1999.
He also accused his former colleagues of plotting to assassinate Mr Putin's political enemies.
But if Mr Putin has been rattled by the international row surrounding his death, he did not show it. Yesterday he boasted that his own government was so solid, it could afford to look at such scandals in a detached way - "from above".
The Russian leader said it was up to investigators to find out what was really behind Litvinenko's murder. In the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service is currently considering whether there is enough evidence to press charges against anyone.
Over the course of the three-and-a-half-hour conference, Mr Putin also found time to hit out at "ill-wishers" who he accused of trying to portray Russia as using its vast energy resources to bully its neighbours. Last year Russia was accused of bullying Ukraine over gas prices; this year it was said to have blackmailed Belarus on the same issue.
But Mr Putin said it was purely a matter of getting "market prices", and of breaking away from the old system of subsidising former Soviet republics. "For 15 years we subsidised these countries at huge expense. Why should we?" And in comments likely to alarm some in the West, he added that an Iranian proposal to form a gas Opec was "interesting" and was being considered.
Russia's old foe, Washington, also came in for sharp criticism. Mr Putin said he was deeply unhappy about US plans to install part of a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, saying it would not help counter terrorism.