My column on the death of Alexander Litvinenko (originally in the Boston Globe) is on Reason.com today.
The precise circumstances of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian ex-spy-turned-dissident who died of radiation poisoning Nov. 23, are likely to remain a mystery for some time. But the tragedy and the reaction to it actually reveal a great deal about Vladimir Putin’s Russia — and the West.
Litvinenko fell ill after a meeting with a source in his investigation of the recent fatal shooting of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another strong critic of the Putin regime. He issued a deathbed statement naming Putin as his murderer. This does not, of course, constitute proof of Putin’s involvement. But the fact that Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium, a highly radioactive substance that is virtually impossible to manufacture or obtain outside a sophisticated nuclear laboratory, points to a high-level plot.
Kremlin spokesmen have derided charges of their involvement as “nonsense,” and Putin has personally denied any role in Litvinenko’s death. Then again, one wouldn’t expect him to issue a statement along the lines of “If I did it, here’s how I would have had Litvinenko murdered.”
After Politkovskaya’s death, Putin commented that “this murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications.” Besides branding Politkovskaya’s work exposing human rights abuses as harmful to her country, this cynical comment was remarkable for another reason. Putin didn’t say the Russian government doesn’t kill its critics, only that it had no reason to kill Politovskaya. Now, Soviet foreign intelligence spokesman Sergei Ivanov has given a similar response to Litvinenko’s death, saying, “Litvinenko is not the kind of person for whose sake we would spoil bilateral relations,” and “it is absolutely not in our interests to be engaged in such activity.”
Yet the murder could be a very effective way to send a message to other critics of Putin and the Russian security apparatus, particularly those who seek to expose the details of the regime’s misdeeds: Lie low, or else. On the other hand, those responsible for the murder may well have decided that the risk to Russia’s relations with the Western powers was very low. After all, it’s unlikely that the Kremlin connection (if it exists) can ever be established definitively. And, particularly given the West’s current dependence on Russia for energy , it’s also unlikely that any Western governments would risk a new Cold War over this murder, at least in the absence of definitive evidence.
The most likely scenario is that Russia will remain a suspect in Litvinenko’s death without ever being proved guilty. And that may also be the best-case scenario for the Putin regime , with the suspicion strong enough to intimidate opponents but not strong enough to hurt Russia’s interests abroad.
Does that mean Putin did it? Not necessarily. But he certainly had the motive, and it’s not clear how many people with no connection to the Kremlin had the opportunity.
It is also possible that Litvinenko’s death was a hit by his former employer, the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service, the revamped KGB), acting without Putin’s direct knowledge. But that hardly exonerates the people at the top.
Not everyone blames the Russian government. On his Russian-politics blog, Sean Guillory complains of the Western media’s excessive willingness to believe allegations of nefarious deeds by the Russian government, noting that such asssumptions treat Russia as “some sort of abnormal society” while holding up the West as a standard of modern democracy. But while every Western government has serious faults, they do not include poisoning critics.
In 1990 on a trip to what was then the Soviet Union, I interviewed Russian economist and activist Tatiana Koryagina, who warned me that contact with her might place me in danger from the KGB because of her work exposing government abuses. I wasn’t sure at the time whether to dismiss the warning as paranoia. Those were the final months of the old Soviet regime. Now, after a decade of movement toward modern democracy, Russia is once again a country where the line between paranoia and reality is often blurred, a country where the independent media and political parties are being slowly strangled. In such a situation, the suspicion that the Russian regime may be reverting to its old ways — not only muzzling but murdering its critics — is not that far-fetched.
Meanwhile, The Guardian reports that Russia is putting up roadblocks to Scotland Yard’s investigation into Litvinenko’s death:
Intense diplomatic pressure was being brought to bear on the Kremlin last night in an attempt to ensure its full cooperation with the Scotland Yard investigation into the polonium-210 poisoning affair.
Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and Jacques Chirac, France’s president, demanded more support and transparency from Moscow, while the Italy’s foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema, pressed for greater assistance during talks with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
But even as those face-to-face talks were taking place a team of Scotland Yard detectives in Moscow were forced to watch as Russian officials seized control of a key part of their inquiry. The officers were told that not only would Russian suspects never be extradited to the UK, but that witnesses would be questioned by Russian police, rather than by British officers.
In issuing his warning, Yuri Chaika, the Russian prosecutor general, also appeared to pre-empt the Yard’s attempts to investigate fully the source of the radioactive isotope which claimed the life of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, in London 13 days ago, by insisting that it could not have come from Russia.
More from The Guardian on another bizarre twist in what is shaping up to be a John Le Carré-caliber spy saga: was Litvinenko planning to use FSB documents to which he had gained access in order to blackmail high-level Kremlin officials about their pilfering of the Yukos oil company, once run by the now-imprisoned tycoon and Putin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky? If this incredible allegation turns out to be true, it certainly tarnishes Litvinenko’s halo of martyrdom, but it also provides an additional motive for Kremlin involvement in this particular “wet work” (as Stalin’s secret police dubbed assassinations).
Meanwhile, Salon.com runs an article on the likely Kremlin link to the assassination and gets a spate of hostile responses, likely from the same types of people for whom “anti-Soviet” was a term of opprobrium back in the old days. One reader is even moved to post this:
Merits (or lack thereof) of this article aside, I find this rush to defend Putin a little disconcerting. While I agree it’s best not to be hasty in judgment and to take all possibilities into account before laying blame, this ‘who benefits?’ argument that’s being used as a magic bullet to shoot down any criticism of the president ignores recent history and the precedent the man himself has set in dealing with political adversaries.
And of course one has to ask, what reputation would Putin be risking by such a brazen execution? This is the man whose country routinely ranks at the bottom of every list Human Rights Watch compiles, who shut down around 90% of Russia’s NGOs since coming to power, who jailed their employees on trumped-up charges, kidnapped, tortured and executed family members, threw out the Peace Corps in 2003 (on charges of espionage!), routinely trades weapons to Iran and much of Central Asia, and created “Nashi”, his own version of the Hitler Youth.
Read the whole post — it’s worth it.
And, for a lovely example of the convergence of far left and far right, see this gem:
Salon should be ashamed for publishing such willful propaganda. If this prevaricated interview proves anything, it is the fact that a deliberate campaign of disinformation has been let loose by the western media.
For christ sake, Putin is not an idiot. He’s an ex-KGB. How can anyone even imagine that he would do something as stupid as getting rid of dissenters in such silly ways knowing fully well that the zionist press would be eager to use any such murder to sully his image?
Can’t you see that ever since Putin has deviated from the policies of the globalists (stooges of western capitalistic cabals like Gorbechev & Yelstin) and embarked on path of Russia first by nationalizing Yukos oil and cutting down to size the jew oligarchs controlling the Russian economy, the political establishment along with the media has been having a go at him, continuously attempting to portray him as a ruthless dictator out to take Russia back to the bad old statilisque (sic) days.
Shame on salon for behaving like any other mouthpiece of the imperialist western empire!
Comments about “jew oligarchs” aside, I think this post provides a window into the mindset of many Putin defenders: he’s their new warrior against capitalistic cabals.