The mystery of ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko's poisoning may be resolved Thursday by a British judge, whose long-awaited report risks worsening Britain's already strained relations with Russia.
Litvinenko died almost 10 years ago, poisoned by tea laced with radioactive material. From his death bed, he blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for ordering his assassination.
Judge Robert Owen will say Thursday whether he believes Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun were responsible and whether the order to kill the dissident came from the top of the Kremlin. British prosecutors said in 2007 that the two men should be charged with murder.
The former KGB agent became an outspoken critic of Putin, fleeing and eventually settling in London. He died about three weeks after consuming the dose of polonium-210, a material traced to Russia. The six-month inquiry looked at the events leading up to his Nov. 23, 2006 death, his complicated involvement with European secret services and the radioactive trail the 44-year-old and his killers left in London.
A ruling by Owen that links the crime to Putin may mean relations with Russia, already strained, will only worsen, analysts said.
"If they identify specific officials it will signify that the U.K. has embarked on an escalation of the confrontation, and it will be seen in Moscow as an unfriendly act," said Boris Makarkin, deputy head of Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies.
The British Home Office declined to comment ahead of the report's publication. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that Russia will respond once the report is published.
Lugovoi has repeatedly denied being involved despite evidence that he and Kovtun met Litvinenko on three occasions in the months before he died, and that tests found traces of polonium in Lugovoi's body. Putin awarded Lugovoi a medal of honor in March for services to his country, a move that led a lawyer representing Litvinenko's widow to brand the president a "tin-pot despot" at a July hearing.
The original inquest into Litvinenko's death started in 2006 and then adjourned pending criminal investigations. A subsequent inquest in 2013 was held back by procedural delays and its investigative powers were limited by national-security concerns.
Home Secretary Theresa May decided to open a public inquiry in July 2014 -- a time when British-Russian relations were at their worst since the end of the Cold War.
"Relations are at a very low ebb between London and Moscow and the report is likely to delay still further any improvement because it will probably point to direct involvement by Russian state agencies," said John Lough, associate fellow in Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia program. "However, I think it is very unlikely that the judge will be in a position to conclude that the order for Litvinenko's murder came from the Kremlin."
Litvinenko was involved in a complicated web of spy agencies and oligarchs, a lawyer for the inquiry said earlier in the proceedings. He trained with the Russian army and was recruited into the KGB spy agency in 1987. He served with the agency in the first Chechen conflict and was allegedly responsible for war crimes, said Robin Tam, a lawyer for the inquiry.
The spy stayed with the agency as it was broken up after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and later formed into the Federal Security Service, or FSB. Before his death, Litvinenko was close to Boris Berezovsky, a one-time billionaire who was found hanging dead in a bathroom in his house outside London in 2013.
Litvinenko exposed a plot in the 1990s by Russian authorities to murder Berezovsky, announcing it at a press conference in Russia. This was an act that his former FSB colleagues considered to be a "gross betrayal," Tam said. The former spy pointed to Moscow after being poisoned.
"You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life," Litvinenko said in a statement as he lay in a London hospital in 2006.