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Kremlin intrigue feeds theories on poisoned-spy case

Who was behind ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko's highly public demise?

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Even seminal spy novelist John le Carré would have been hard put to craft such an inscrutable web of shadowy figures and murky alliances.

As Scotland Yard expands to Moscow its investigation of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko's poisoning, the "whodunit" theories now implicate just about every possible player:

•Enemies – or friends – of President Vladimir Putin

•Mr. Putin himself

•Russia's secret services

•The St. Petersburg mafia

•Mr. Litvinenko's friend, Boris Berezovsky, and even Litvinenko himself.

But another theory gathering momentum in Russia is that Litvinenko's highly public demise – taken with the October murder of Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya – are byproducts of intense jockeying for power ahead of Putin's departure in 2008.

"Putin has not yet made his plans clear over who will be his successor or what the process will be," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Gorbachev Foundation, a Moscow think tank run by the former Soviet leader. "In the absence of clarity, the competitive groups may be beginning to act on their own, to reshape the political field to suit their own needs. It must be stressed that Russia is not a European-style democracy, where political struggle is limited by laws and constitutions."

Who benefits from Litvinenko's death?

One suggestion is that "enemies of Putin" in the hard-line silovik Kremlin faction, composed of members of the secret services, may be trying to drive a wedge between Russia and the West to fuel nationalist sentiment at home and improve chances for one of their number to become the next president.

"Politkovskaya and Litvinenko's murders reflect an internal struggle within the Russian elite," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute of Globalization Problems in Moscow. "Some groupings are very interested in aggravating the situation, because the more tensions rise, the more Putin becomes dependent upon them."

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