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A Gangster State

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Martin Walker
UPI Editor Emeritus
Washington DC (UPI) Nov 27, 2006
Whatever the truth behind the bizarre murder by radiation poisoning of former Russian intelligence Col. Alexander Litvinenko, he has managed in death to tarnish the image of his country and its leaders. Russia now looks like a gangster state, led by a vindictive and ruthless thug.

Yet most of the governments of the West shrug this aside and continue to do business as usual. Earlier this month, the United States signed a protocol with Russia that will ease its way into the World Trade Organization. Last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Helsinki trying to negotiate a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union. Had it not been for the objections of Poland over a Russian ban on Polish meat exports, a new free trade deal between Russia and the EU would very likely have been under way.

"We have looked at the problems of the world with, probably, I would not make a mistake if I said, the same eyes," commented the EU's top foreign policy official, Javier Solana.

That is the key point. To a striking degree, the United States, the EU and Russia all look at the world through the same eyes. To take the most obvious examples, each of the three understands clearly that radical Islam is a major threat, that the American embarrassment in Iraq seems likely to make radical Islam even stronger and more menacing, and that a similar disaster now seems to be unfolding in Afghanistan.

Last week in Moscow, a number of Russia's top foreign policy analysts gave a press conference to discuss the implications of this week's planned NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, and they had three main conclusions. The first was that NATO's enlargement had stopped, and so NATO was no longer seriously threatening Russian interests. The second was that at least in Afghanistan, NATO was fighting Russia's battles. And the third was that Americans and Europeans alike had finally understood that they needed Russia as an ally, however uncomfortable they might be with the new Russian nationalism of President Vladimir Putin.

For many Russians, the fact that NATO now meets in what used to be a Soviet city is in itself a humiliating reminder of its weakness. And until quite recently, Russia was bracing for another humiliation, since this Riga summit was supposed to see a clear declaration of intent that two other former Soviet Republics, Ukraine and Georgia, were now on their way to NATO membership.

It is only three years ago that Georgia enjoyed its "Rose Revolution" that brought in a new and democratic government pledged to take the small Caucasus republic into NATO and the EU. And it is only two years ago that Ukraine enjoyed its "Orange Revolution" that toppled a corrupt and pro-Russian regime that was replaced by the pro-Western government of Viktor Yushchenko. But the man that he replaced, Yanukovych, is now the prime minister and Ukraine, like Georgia, will not be welcomed into NATO or the EU any time soon.

Sergei Rogov, director of Moscow's venerable U.S. and Canada Institute, suggested that "the world has entered a new era. The new era is ushered in by the colossal political defeat of the United States, connected above all with the war in Iraq. But today it can be said that there is no question of a U.S. victory in Iraq. The question is whether it will be a defeat as grave as America's defeat in Vietnam 35 years ago or worse."

This American defeat was Russia's opportunity, Rogov went on. He listed the Iraq mess, Iran's nuclear ambitions and North Korea's defiance as crises where "the U.S. needs Russia's support on all these issues. So why antagonize Russia? I may be wrong but I think this is why the question of inviting Georgia and Ukraine to NATO is not on the agenda, and this is why the Riga summit will proclaim the year 2007 to be a year of cooperation between Russia and NATO."

But then Rogov made that startling suggestion that not only was NATO not threatening Russia's interests by enlarging into Russia's geo-political space, but NATO was actually defending Russia's interests in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan should make us seriously revise our cooperation with NATO," Rogov said. "It becomes absolutely clear that there is a real threat of the Taliban's return. And this will be a serious threat to Russia's security interests. NATO's defeat in Afghanistan will definitely have negative consequences for our country because NATO defends the southern underbelly of Russia."

So that rather puts into perspective the sad death of Alexander Litvinenko, whose offence seems to have been that he was probing too deeply into the murder of crusading journalist Anna Politovskaya. Russia may be a gangster state, and President Putin may be a murderous bully, the Al Capone of world leaders, but Russia is enviably rich in oil and natural gas, diplomatically important and potentially very useful. Little surprise, therefore, that the EU and American leaders shrug their shoulders, keep their distaste to themselves and negotiate partnership agreements that welcome Russia into the World Trade Organization.

This is realism, the principle of statecraft that says personal feelings or high-minded moral concerns have no place in diplomacy, and national self-interest is all that matters. Realists like to quote that 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston, who famously observed that "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

It has become a commonplace in today's Washington to say that with the setbacks in Iraq and the eclipse of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the neoconservatives, that the realists are back in the saddle. That classic realist James Baker is now effectively in charge of Iraq policy, as Washington awaits the recommendations of his Iraq Study Group. And in Congress and the think tanks and along Embassy Row there is widespread relief at the fall of those foolish dreamers with their visions of American-style democracy spreading from Iraq across the Middle East.

But let us be quite clear what realism in foreign policy means. It means business as usual with the thug in the Kremlin, and it means a regretful wave of dismissal to the wretched Georgians who thought the Western nations might actually believe in their high-minded rhetoric of independence and freedom. It means, in the absence of any real penalty for the murders of Politovskaya and Litvinenko, that such ruthless suppression of inconvenient dissent is likely to continue in Russia or abroad.

Realism says that is simply the cost of doing business, and that is its besetting problem. Realism ignores the moral costs that come with an amoral foreign policy based purely on self-interest. Realism, as Oscar Wilde said in another context, knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Realism is not enough; in the end, it makes its practitioners ashamed of themselves.

earlier related report
Who Killed Alexander Litvinenko
by Stefan Nicola UPI Correspondent
London (UPI) Nov 27 - The mysterious poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has cast a dark shadow on the Kremlin, as he had investigated two high-profile affairs that have the potential to seriously embarrass the Russian government. One of the last photographs taken of the former KGB and FSB spy foreshadowed what was soon to come: Lying on a large white pillow in a London hospital with tubes attached to his chest, his head bald and eyes barely open, Litvinenko resembled a cancer patient in his final hours.

When he succumbed last Thursday to the radioactive and thus poisonous isotope polonium-210 that unidentified individuals had managed to feed into his body, doctors lost a relentless fight to save the 43-year-old's life.

The case has now been turned over to Scotland Yard, and it is one of the most high-profile spy killings in the country's history since the man whom Litvinenko charged with his murder sits at the helm of the Russian government.

"You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life," said Litvinenko's statement, read out by fellow dissident and friend Alex Goldfarb last Friday. "May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people."

The Kremlin has of course denied any involvement in the killing, calling such allegations "absolute nonsense."

Before his mysterious poisoning, Litvinenko probed the assassination of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Moscow has come under attack after Politkovskaya, one of the most fiercely anti-Kremlin Russian media figures, was found shot dead on Oct. 7 in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow.

But evidence in the Politkovskaya case may not have been Litvinenko's hottest material: The London Times reported Monday that he had also drawn up an extensive dossier -- which is now in the hands of Scotland Yard -- dealing with the Kremlin's forced takeover of oil firm Yukos.

Litvinenko had given the dossier to Leonid Nevzlin, the former deputy head of Yukos, who fled to Israel after Moscow sold off his company.

"Alexander had information on crimes committed with the Russian Government's direct participation," Nevzlin told the London Times after he had given the file to the authorities.

Investigators confirmed rumors that Litvinenko had managed to uncover "startling" new material in the affair, which has seen several former Yukos officials disappear or die in mysterious circumstances while the company's former head and the most prominent Yukos victim, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has been jailed.

Litvinenko, in the hours and days before his death, apparently passed on the names of a number of people linked to the Kremlin that have targeted him.

"At present we have a bewildering number of theories and names put to us, and we must establish some firm evidence," one individual close to the investigation told the London Times.

The long list of enemies comes at no surprise: Litvinenko for the past six years has repeatedly published criticism of Putin and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor to the KGB; he wrote a book called 'Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within,' alleging that the Russian spy service orchestrated the 1999 apartment block bombings in Russia that killed more than 300 people and were later used to justify military offensives in Chechnya. At the time, the former spy was already in seemingly safe London, where in 2000, he sought political asylum after he had left Russia because he faced prison time there because of spectacular allegations against the FSB.

In 1998, Litvinenko, then a FSB specialist who fought terrorism and organized crime, announced at a news conference that his superiors had ordered him to kill Boris Berezovsky, who at the time was one of Boris Yeltsin's top security officials.

Litvinenko was arrested and imprisoned, and fled to Britain soon after his release; Berezovsky did the same.

In the past years, the Kremlin has tried to polish Russia's image; with the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Moscow managed to up the government's standing abroad. The two recent murders, however, have severely tarnished Russia's image and could significantly cloud EU-Russian relations.

In light of the latest spy killing, politicians in Western Europe have urged their governments to press Moscow with their concerns.

Menzies Campbell, a British opposition politician, according to the London Times said the government should have been "much tougher" on Putin and added that British-Russian relations would have to be re-considered if Litvinenko's killing was due to "state terrorism."

Government officials in Britain and in Germany are much less aggressive, and critics say this is due to Europe's growing dependence on Russian energy supplies. Russian-EU relations have recently been quite rocky in the wake of bilateral tensions with Poland and Georgia.

But Andreas Schockenhoff, responsible for German-Russian relations for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, said the reasons were different. "We must not put Russia under general suspicion," he told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.

Observers note it wouldn't make much sense for Moscow to go to great lengths and risk internationl isolation to eliminate a man who, despite his fierce and numerous anti-Kremlin writings, never managed to destabilize Putin.

On the other hand, polonium-210, the radioactive isotope found in Litvinenko's body, points to either a state-sponsored assassin or at least one who is able to pull some strings: A very rare element in nature, polonium is found in uranium ores at very low quantities and getting your hands onto it is extremely difficult, Andrea Sella, a chemistry professor at University College London, told the London Times.

"This is not the sort of thing that amateurs could have cooked up in a bathtub. You would have to go to a nuclear lab such as Oak Ridge, Los Alamos or Harwell -- or to one of the Russian ones."

Source: United Press International

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