I had no sooner helped myself to a seat in Boris Berezovsky's sleek Mayfair office when he pointed out that I was sitting where Andrei Lugovoi sat the day before former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned late last year.
That chair later tested positive for polonium 210.
It's since been switched for a new one.
Lugovoi is the man the press points to as the one who most likely poisoned Litvinenko — a murder that remains unsolved. The murdered spy was a friend of Berezovsky, the most famous and original Russian billionaire tycoon, living in exile since early this decade.
Russia has repeatedly tried to extradite Berezovsky on charges of fraud — and for calling for regime change in Russia — but the U.K. has granted him political asylum. He made his wealth and achieved “oligarch” status during the highly controversial, some would say lawless, “Wild East” period of privatization in Russia. With a handful of other wily tycoons, he made a fortune buying up pieces of Russia's formerly state-owned enterprises. Now, he lives a life constantly looking over his shoulder, with concern for his own personal safety.
The alleged poisoner, Lugovoi, is also a former Russian spy, and incidentally, a former bodyguard of Berezovsky's from Moscow days. He himself is now back in Russia.
I know this plot and the players are confusing, but the bottom line is this: there are huge questions about whether justice will ever be served for Alexander Litvinenko, and whether the Kremlin was behind the murder, as many allege — including the exiled Berezovsky.
There was a time when Berezovsky trusted Lugovoi, but he says trust and personal relationships are nothing next to the power of the Russian security services. Once a person enters the world of the Russian secret services, the old KGB or the current FSB, there is simply no way out, and betrayal carries a death sentence. Ultimately, according to Berezovsky, in President Vladimir Putin's Russia, loyalty to the state supersedes all, and is forever.
That could explain why or how Lugovoi could have been sucked back into service to carry out a gruesome mission, one he may or may not have supported.
But this is all speculation. Lugovoi has not even been named by Scotland Yard as a suspect, and may be an entirely innocent man, as he maintains. The case is complicated, and the obvious main players all appear to be on Russian soil at this point.
This week, Lugovoi called Berezovsky from Moscow, and the two spoke for the first time since Litvinenko was poisoned — since Lugovoi and Berezovsky sat in Berezovsky's office, drinking wine and discussing matters of a much less serious nature late last year.
During the conversation, Lugovoi told Berezovsky that he was concerned about his name being dragged through the mud. Although Berezovsky has said in the past that, on his deathbed, Litvinenko told him that Lugovoi may have been involved in the poisoning, Berezovsky told Lugovoi on the phone, “Look, if you know you are not guilty, get on a plane and come to London; talk to Scotland Yard.”
Lugovoi responded that he wasn't ruling out doing that; he might indeed come to London. Still, Berezovsky senses that something holds Lugovoi back. It could be the FSB or Russian Security Services, or it could be something else. Scotland Yard detectives have not had free and unfettered access to any of the men they chose to speak to in Moscow. Russian authorities were the ones doing the questioning. British police were just observing.
Berezovsky, of course, has said from the very beginning that he believes that the Kremlin was behind the dramatic poisoning. Litvinenko had been one of “them,” but then left the KGB, or FSB, and started criticizing the Russian government and telling its secrets. He accused the Kremlin, for example, of orchestrating the explosions in Russian apartment buildings that were ultimately blamed on Chechen terrorists and led to Russia's second brutal invasion of the Chechen republic.
Berezovsky maintains that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the whole machine could never tolerate such treacherous behaviour and allegations - and killed Litvinenko to send a signal to others. Silence ensures safety, and Berezovsky insists that the entire Russian security services are criminal.
The Kremlin, for its part, vehemently denies any involvement in Litvinenko's murder. And so it goes.
Litvinenko's widow, Berezovsky and some of their friends, have all vowed to fight for some sort of justice, until the killer or killers is behind bars. Berezovsky says that until the entire polonium 210 chain is revealed, from its very source, to its handlers, and the way it got into Litvinenko's tea, no one can feel safe anywhere. And he knows he is not safe. Wanted in Moscow, he can't go home, and in London he always travels with protection. Once the consummate Kremlin insider, Berezovsky, now outside his homeland, finds himself again at the center of drama.
Many of his fellow Russian robber barons are similarly out of favour and considered personae non grata in their homeland. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, to name a few, also crossed the Kremlin after making their vast fortunes. Now, the Kremlin is cracking down on them, but mysteriously, not on other oligarchs. Those on the outs allege selective law and tax enforcement.
Berezovsky obviously has an axe to grind, but his analysis of the current political situation in his homeland increasingly resonates in the West, whose initial love affair with Putin is fading fast.
Berezovsky accuses Putin of using oil and gas, supplies of which Russia has shut off on various occasions to Ukraine and Belorussia, as political tools to rebuild the empire. Berezovsky says the West has cut Putin too much slack — something former President Ronald Reagan or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would not have done because they were, according to Berezovsky, greater strategists than their current counterparts. He lashes out at French President Jacques Chirac and former German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder, now on the board of a company pretty much run by Gazprom, the Russian gas giant.
Berezovsky said that Bush and Blair want to be nice to Putin. “They call him a nice guy, 'our friend.' 'I watch his eyes and recognize he is a great fantastic man,'” he says, a mocking reference to President Bush's remarks some years ago about looking into Putin's eyes and seeing his soul.
Berezovsky thinks everyone got Putin wrong, partly due to the world's dependence on oil and gas, which Russia has in great abundance. But now, he thinks the world is finally starting to see the light, and beginning to understand that Putin is centralizing authority in Russia and taking the country backward, away from democracy. He also thinks that the U.S. dropped the ball back in former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's day, by failing to provide Russia with guidance as it began on its bumpy path to democracy.
Nevermind, he says, Russia and the U.S. will one day be partners in the real sense of the word. Clearly the two great powers, once the sole Superpowers of the world, could pool resources to tackle many of the nagging and critical international issues of our times.
In the meantime, Berezovsky ridicules the Russians for insisting on sending their own investigators here, to London, to conduct their own probe into the Litvinenko case, calling it a hypocritical charade to divert away from their own guilt. Nevertheless, he says he will be more than happy to cooperate with them if they do come here, provided, of course, that questioning does not take place at the Russian Embassy in London…and that anyone who speaks to him is checked for weapons and poison before they get anywhere near him.
Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in Milan, Italy. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @amykelloggfox