Perspectives: Poisoned critic, poisoned Russia

The Litvinenko murder makes it crystal clear: The old KGB is alive and kicking

Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on December 17, 2006

MOSCOW, Russia - It turned out to be the peanuts and not the polonium-210 that caused my minor gastrointestinal ailment.

Polonium-210 is the radioactive isotope used to poison former KGB agent and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, traces of which were found last week on several British Airways planes. I flew in one of those planes on the last leg of a trip to Moscow from the United States.

My name now is on a list of more than 33,000 passengers who flew on contaminated Boeing 767s from Oct. 25 through Nov. 29. Although the risk to me and my fellow passengers is deemed low, British health authorities have called 179 people for further investigation and referred 27 to a clinic to test for radiation exposure. Fortunately, I have not been among them.

But as thousands of airborne bystanders got snarled in the poisoning scandal and sought reassurance, the impact of the incident and, by extension, of the murky, Soviet-style way that Russia now operates, have become the subject of deepening global scrutiny.

Mr. Litvinenko, a naturalized British citizen, fell mysteriously ill shortly after meeting Nov. 1 with two Russian businessmen at a London hotel. An Italian academic had warned him that they both were on a hit list of Kremlin opponents.

Mr. Litvinenko died in a London hospital on Nov. 23 from what British investigators have determined was deliberate poisoning. In a deathbed statement, Mr. Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering the killing, spawning a series of intricate conspiracy theories and triggering a Cold War-like strain on Russia's relationship with London and the West.

The case is now spiraling internationally, with the FBI joining the probe to investigate traces of radiation found at dozens of sites in Britain and with scores of people showing signs of poisoning.

Many questions remain as to who poisoned Mr. Litvinenko and why, but evidence found by Scotland Yard as to the origins of the polonium-210 strongly suggests a Kremlin connection, implicating Mr. Putin directly or "rogue elements" within the Russian government. The Kremlin has vehemently denied any role in Mr. Litvinenko's death.

Coming after several years of suspicious killings, attempted murders and general harassment of Putin opponents, the message emerging from the shadowy assassination of Mr. Litvinenko is crystal clear: The old KGB is alive and kicking.

Not only that, it now is employing its nefarious tactics beyond Russia's borders, thanks to legislation passed just months before the attack on Mr. Litvinenko which permits the security service, now known as the FSB, to fight terrorism by targeting opponents abroad for assassination.

Russia's entire response to this real-life spy thriller smacks of Soviet thinking, ways and means.

Poisoning to liquidate enemies of the state was a favorite tactic of the KGB. More tellingly, Russia's "full cooperation" in the investigation, which it pledged Britain, is characteristically turning into a farce.

In moves reminiscent of those it made this fall to "solve" the still unsolved murders of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Central Bank First Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov, among others, the Kremlin's work on this case is taking place in complete obscurity.

British investigators in Moscow have found their work hindered by Russian law enforcement, which has brandished a series of restrictive rules. Among them is the requirement that suspects be interviewed only by Russian officials. British authorities also have no means to have suspects arrested or extradited. According to Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, "The Russian Constitution makes that impossible."

The Russian side also is refusing to comment on the investigation, aside from issuing denials of involvement. On Dec. 4, despite strong evidence to the contrary, the Federal Atomic Energy Agency denied that any polonium could have left the country unaccounted for.

On Dec. 7 Russian prosecutors announced they soon will launch their own investigation into the death of Mr. Litvinenko and what they allege was the attempted murder of Dmitry Kovtun, one of the businessmen he met Nov. 1. The British consider Mr. Kovtun a suspect. With their work safely hidden from Western inquiries, the Kremlin can breathe freely.

As in the dark past, the Russian state remains inscrutable in this tale of misinformation, disinformation or no information at all. But this latest violent removal of a Putin critic does reveal two things about the present state of Russian politics.

First, Russian authorities are afraid of things that shouldn't scare them. Their relentless crackdown on all forms of dissent or independent thought suggests they fear divergent voices and foreign influence. But economically and politically, Russia can only benefit from new and different ideas and should seek to integrate them into post-Soviet society.

Second, Russian authorities are not afraid of things they should fear. Putin supporters argue that he could not have staged something like Mr. Litvinenko's assassination because of the potential damage to Russia's international relationships. But judging by the government's increasingly autocratic actions and appalling lack of respect for the rule of law and human rights, it is clear that Russian authorities do not fear the opprobrium of the rest of the world.

Mr. Putin would do well to pay more heed to Russia's foreign partners, to protect their interests in Russia and to act as a mature interlocutor on issues such as energy, Iran and North Korea. Russia has much to gain from economic and political cooperation with other powerful countries, and much to lose from alienating them.

Whether Mr. Putin is directly tied to the Litvinenko assassination or not, he clearly has enabled the environment of lawlessness which allowed it to occur.

Mr. Litvinenko's killing ought to wake up the West to the true nature of this government and its leader, himself a KGB veteran, and inspire efforts to rein them in.