Mr. Putin's Russia

From Globe and Mail
Thursday, December 14, 2006

The murder of Russian exile and former spy Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko is now being complicated by new accusations. Perhaps they reflect the natural complications of exile politics -- there are many quarrelling Russians in London -- but perhaps we are witnessing a classic disinformation campaign.

Because the accusation that Mr. Litvinenko was poisoned by his former colleagues to stop his denunciations of Russian President Vladimir Putin is all too plausible, denials are not enough. Instead, the original accusation is being diluted by other theories. It hardly matters that none is very credible -- they still divert attention from the simplest explanation.

Thus, some claim that Mr. Litvinenko was not killed by his enemies, but rather by his best friends -- such as the magnate Boris Berezovsky -- precisely to implicate the FSB (the agency that replaced the KGB) and Mr. Putin. That kind of reversal was standard operating procedure in Soviet days. Even more improbably, it has been suggested that Mr. Litvinenko was killed by his Jewish friends because he planned to convert to Islam. Others argued that the polonium 210, which irreversibly destroyed Mr. Litvinenko's tissues, does not indicate a governmental murder at all because it is commonly used in anti-static clothes brushes, and can be freely purchased on the Internet. In fact, with a half-life of only 138 days, and at one hundred millionth of a gram lethal if inhaled, the polonium 210 embedded in brushes and such cannot be safely extracted without great effort -- whereas it is a normal byproduct in nuclear reactors.

Another reminder of the past is how the Scotland Yard detectives, who went to Moscow to interview the two Russian citizens who had flown to London specifically to meet Mr. Litvinenko on the very day he became ill, were treated. While Russian authorities ridiculed the suggestion that the polonium 210 had come from Russia -- until tests proved the British Airways aircraft the two had flown was contaminated -- they nevertheless promised full co-operation. Yet, when the British detectives arrived in Moscow they were not allowed to interrogate the two Russians. Instead they could only sit by silently as Russian officials took over the interview.

But there is really no need to speculate about mysterious murders -- Mr. Litvinenko is but one of several recent victims -- to form an opinion of Mr. Putin's Russia.

When Vladimir Putin, the neat and modern-looking young law graduate from St. Petersburg, first became President in 1999, it seemed certain he would strive to Westernize Russia. His favourite subject was the country's urgent need for more legality in all things, with fair and independent courts, honest and professional police forces, even competent lawyers. Mr. Putin also seemed to favour foreign investment and, more broadly, the continued liberalization of the economy. Not much remains of these hopes.

When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia's richest man, campaigned for the presidency in 2003, he was arrested and charged with tax evasion. In the ensuing trial, the judges rejected almost every defence motion, accepted almost every prosecution motion, and their 662-page verdict rendered in May, 2005, repeated the prosecution's accusations almost word for word. A few months later, Mr. Khodorkovsky announced from prison, where he was serving a nine-year sentence, that he would run for parliament. He was legally entitled to do so while his case was still in the appeal court, a process that usually takes a year or so. Instead, the final verdict came in just two weeks, a wholly unprecedented speed, precluding any parliamentary campaign. By this time, nobody could believe in either Mr. Khodorkovsky's innocence, nor in the independence of the courts that found him guilty.

Meanwhile, even as Mr. Khodorkovsky's giant oil company Yukos was taken away from him and other shareholders by further court actions of dubious legality, Western oil companies continued to invest vast sums in Russian oil and gas ventures. They may come to regret that -- and soon. Russian authorities have now begun accusing these companies, which have invested some $37-billion (!) in Sakhalin, of ruining the environment. This could be true, of course, except that the concerted Soviet-style propaganda campaign now under way to take away their property is based on showing repeated TV footage of dead salmon -- salmon that die every two years in a regular spawning cycle. Other Western oil companies are being accused of tax evasion, Mr. Khodorkovsky's crime. That accusation could also be true, of course, except that production consortia include Russian companies and, yet, it is only the Western partners being accused.

At the border crossings on the Narva River between Estonia and Russia, there is an even more obvious indication of the way things are going. Thanks to a dispute with Poland, Russia is retaliating against all members of the European Union by drastically slowing down customs procedures. Hundreds of trucks must wait for days on end to cross the border, some coming from as far away as southern Spain. It is now very cold in Narva, there are no facilities for the drivers to eat or wash, and they must keep engines running to keep warm. Elsewhere, some temporary arrangement would soon be found to avoid all this unnecessary hardship, but the Russian officials at the border are entirely unmoved, as are their superiors, who find it curious that anyone should ask them to care for the wellbeing of anonymous truck drivers.

Instead of Western legality there is the spirit of Eastern tyranny in this, as in Mr. Putin's own aborted attempt to cut off Ukrainian gas supplies last year. He had obviously forgotten that Russian gas supplies to Italy and the rest of southeast Europe must go though the Ukrainian pipeline. And, most significantly, none around him in the Kremlin was willing to contradict Mr. Putin by showing him a map. It is such servility that makes tyrants. So, after all, it really does not matter who killed Mr. Litvinenko, and whether it was to please Mr. Putin that the deed was done.

Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.