Set in London, it has all the elements of an old Cold War thriller — but it just happened, and it’s no fiction. Former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko is poisoned to death, dying horribly over the course of three weeks, after someone apparently slipped him a lethal dose of a radioactive isotope, Polonium-210. If anyone is well-placed to guess who master-minded his murder, it is the dying Litvinenko himself, who for the previous eight years has been one of the most outspoken critics of his former bosses in the FSB, formerly the KGB. From his hospital bed, we are told, he dictates a statement blaming Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, himself a veteran of the KGB, and telling him: “May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me, but to beloved Russia and its people.” And as the Kremlin denials begin and the conspiracy theories multiply — here you can find the Times of London summarizing the top five — the question of the hour is, whodunnit?
The even bigger question is whether the democratic world, especially the U.S., will heed the warnings that Litvinenko spent eight years trying to send us — in the process spending time in 1999 in Russia’s Lefortovo prison, and then fleeing into exile. With his death, his 2002 book, “Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within,” co-authored with Yuri Felshtinsky, has jumped to #118 in sales on Amazon — (I’m betting it was no where near that a month ago). The mystery and horror surrounding his death will no doubt linger in the headlines. But will the message stick?
Engrossed as we are in the current mess of a debate over the war against Islamo-fascists, it’s all too tempting to dismiss the signs that despite a number of common enemies, our erstwhile allies now running Russia are not exactly on our side. Russia’s government enjoys a lot of trust and fancy trappings, including membership bestowed during the Clinton era in the G-8 (in which this year it holds the presidency); and the USSR’s old veto-wielding permanent seat on the UN Security Council (which the Soviet Union didn’t deserve either). Less than a week ago, President Bush (in Hanoi, of all places) gave a U.S. green light to Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization.
Meanwhile, Russia has been busy trading in all the wrong ways. On top of years spent selling nuclear technology to Iran, Russia’s defense ministry has just announced it is going ahead with deliveries to Tehran of anti-aircraft missiles. At the UN, Russia continues to block any serious attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear bomb program. In Iraq, during the Saddam Hussein era, Russia was the top trader with Baghdad via the graft-ridden Oil-for-Food program, leaving a trail of damning documentary evidence leading right up to the Kremlin — which Russian authorities have somehow neglected to investigate in any meangful way. With free speech basically dead in Russia, small surprise that on many fronts there is no end to the question marks and conspiracy theories. Who was behind the near-fatal poisoning in 2004 of the leader of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko? Who was behind the recent murder of outspoken Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya? — whose shooting Litvinenko was investigating when he was poisoned. The murk is considerable, but one bottom-line is obvious. With an ally like Putin, don’t gaze into his eyes. Watch your back. And bring a food-taster.