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Warning: Opposing Putin Hazardous to Your Health

New evidence that standing up to the Kremlin can be a poisonous proposition — literally.

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July 25, 2008 - 12:00 am

This month has seen two startling confirmations that Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin is engaged in state-sponsored murder for political motives.

First, on July 8 a “senior security official” in the British government told the BBC that “we very strongly believe the Litvinenko case to have had some state involvement.”

KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, who had been aggressively publicizing allegations that the Kremlin had detonated bombs in apartment buildings in Moscow in order to blame the Chechen rebels and justify a renewed military incursion into their breakaway region, was murdered in London in late 2006 using radioactive toxins that have been traced to Russia.

Then, on July 16 the Russian wire service RIA Novosti reported that “Russia has refused to extradite a former Ukrainian security service deputy head suspected of involvement in the poisoning of President Viktor Yushchenko in 2004.”

Yuschenko, of course, is the strongly pro-West leader who has been urging Ukraine closer to the West and seeking NATO membership. The basis for the refusal? The alleged assassin “fled to Russia and received Russian citizenship.”

So just as Russia has refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, whom the British government has fingered for his involvement in the Litvinenko murder, claiming that a Russian citizen cannot be sent to a foreign land for trial (even though Russia has signed a treaty authorizing this), it likewise refuses to extradite Vladimir Satsyuk, former deputy head of the Ukrainian secret police. Russia has also been accused of giving safe harbor to suspected Serbian war criminals. As RIA notes: “Yushchenko became seriously ill in early September 2004, the day after attending a reception and dinner with Ukrainian security services leaders.”

“Seriously ill” is a mighty understatement. Yuschenko was poisoned with deadly dioxin, resulting in massive facial deformities, and only barely managed to survive the incident.

Consider this scenario: While campaigning for a third term as the “president” of Russia, Vladimir Putin is stricken with a deadly poison and his face massively disfigured. Miraculously, he survives and goes on to win “election.” Russian authorities identify the alleged assassin, a ranking figure in the Russian secret police. But before they can arrest him, he flees to America. The U.S. confers citizenship on the assassin, and when Russia demands extradition America refuses on that basis.

How do you suppose Russia would react?

State-sponsored propaganda campaign Russia Today launched an all-out offensive seeking to blunt the damage these events are inflicting on the Kremlin’s reputation. Quoting only the Russian paper Izvestia, RT states that Litvinenko “provided British and Spanish special services with information about Russia’s top mafia members in exile. The theory goes that he could have been the victim of a contract killing by the mafia in revenge.” And then three days after the BBC report aired, the Kremlin was “shocked, shocked” to discover an alleged spy in the British embassy in Moscow, namely Christopher Bowers, head of the embassy’s trade and investment section.

One has to give the Kremlin credit for the two-birds-with-one-stone aspect of the Litvinenko murder. Not only did it liquidate a vexing international critic of the Kremlin, but it enabled the Kremlin to try to blame the killing on another such figure, Boris Berezovsky, whom the Kremlin wishes to prosecute in the same manner that it went after Mikhail Khodorokovsky, but who has successfully sought asylum in Britain. And indeed, the BBC report confirmed that officers at MI5 believe they thwarted an attempt last summer to kill Berezovsky after the Litvinenko gambit did not pay off.

And the same is true of the Yushchenko attack. Not only did it offer the potential to silence, or at least intimidate, one of Russia’s thorniest opposition political leaders, but the chaos and tension that would naturally result could be taken by NATO as a sign that Ukraine is not yet stable enough for NATO membership. Blocking that ascension is one of Russia’s key foreign policy goals, along with achieving the same result in Georgia.

Seen in the context of the long string of domestic murders of political rivals that has continued throughout Putin’s time in Moscow, from Galina Starovoitova to Anna Politkovskaya, these foreign attacks form part of a consistent pattern of state-sponsored murder to achieve political goals.

How, then, can the G-7 democracies justify sitting down with Russia as an honorary eighth member in the face of these horrific allegations? It seems clear that John McCain’s call to evict Russia from the group is the right one. Barack Obama wants Russia to remain in the group in the hope that this will give the West increased leverage over Russia’s wayward nuclear materials and connections to terrorist organizations, but his platform is woefully barren of alternative proposals to bring pressure to bear on Russia’s neo-Soviet dictatorship.

Little wonder, then, that Russians favor Obama over McCain.

A pro-Kremlin propaganda website called Russia Blog and operated by one Yuri Mamchur, a Russian citizen who works for the Discovery Institute and in collaboration with Russia Today, has said that the Russians themselves are pulling for Obama (much as Castro, Qaddafi, Hamas, and even Kim Jong Il have done as well). Mamchur states: “After presenting the question to nearly 50 Russians, the answer is clear: one hundred percent of our not-so-random sampling said Senator Barack Obama is their first choice.”

Writing in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, has the same view. He states: “Barack Obama looks like the candidate that can be expected to take the greatest strides toward Russia, since unlike McCain, he’s not infected with any Cold War phobias, and unlike Clinton, he won’t be tied down by the old habits of his advisors.”

With Kremlin sycophants slobbering all over Obama, it’s hard to put much faith in the hope expressed by some that another Obama Russia advisor, Michael McFaul of the Hoover Institution and Stanford University, may help him see the light. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also a Hoover and Stanford affiliate, but that didn’t help her keep the president from being hypnotized by Mr. Putin. True, McFaul has recently issued some stern criticism of the Kremlin, including an impressive essay in Foreign Affairs arguing that the Russian economy would be much better off but for Putin’s anti-democratic moves. But McFaul hasn’t succeeded, if he’s even tried, in getting Obama to lay out a specific plan of action for beating back the advances of dictatorship under Putin, much less in getting justice for Putin’s litany of victims. And it’s not clear to me whether McFaul himself has any such plan.

This may be another reason why those within the Kremlin find Mr. Obama so appealing.

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