The former KGB can hold a grudge.
That is the moral of a string of lethal and near-lethal poisonings widely attributed to the Russian secret services, which have regained their clout under Russian President Vladimir Putin, their former boss.
The victims were some of the Putin regime s most prominent critics, including a Russian parliament member, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, a Russian investigative reporter, and a Russian emigre. Most recently, a former Russian prime minister was poisoned.
Given that the future of the West s relations with Russia the world s largest exporter of fossil fuels is at stake, it may never be learned who specifically gave the orders. But thinking that the Kremlin had nothing to do with the assassinations would be naive.
Enter Alexander Litvinenko. The former lieutenant colonel in the FSB, successor to the KGB, was killed with a tiny amount of a rare, hard-to-detect radioactive element.
Mr. Litvinenko, a naturalized British citizen, was investigating the shooting death of a stellar Russian investigative reporter who blamed the Russian authorities for an attempt to lethally poison her a couple of years ago. The colonel immigrated to Britain in 2000 after the Russian security services turned on him; he had announced that he would not carry out an order to assassinate Boris Berezovsky, a former media tycoon and once the country s most powerful man. He had helped bring Mr. Putin to power but later refused to dance to his tune.
The FSB hand jumps out at you in Mr. Litvinenko s assassination, calling to mind similar cases in the West from way back in the Cold War and recent cases in Russia.
In addition to the murky circumstances, macabre professionalism of the killers, and rarity of chemicals involved, there is a new Russian law that allows the Russian secret services to assassinate anyone they deem a terrorist (read: a threat to them), in Russia or abroad.
Throw in the disinformation campaign by the Kremlin-controlled Russian media and the awkward denials of any involvement by the Kremlin, and the picture is complete.
A near-lethal poisoning of a former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar with an undetermined substance in Ireland Nov. 24, a day after Mr. Litvinenko died in London, appears to be a distraction meant to support the official theory that Mr. Putin s enemies are at work here.
Cover-up theories spread by the Kremlin vary from accusing mythical enemies of Mr. Putin to blaming the victims. They purportedly tried or committed suicide with a single goal in mind to set up Mr. Putin.
World public opinion had given Mr. Putin the benefit of the doubt. But the poisoning of Mr. Litvinenko is tipping the scales and not in Mr. Putin s favor.
It is still unclear if Mr. Putin would be arrogant enough to demand the death of Mr. Litvinenko, as the latter claimed on his death bed. Issuing a presidential order to assassinate a British citizen in London would be risking political isolation in the West.
Mr. Putin repeated the excuse that the victims, though harmful, do not merit such a drastic measure. Cynical as that may be, it may hold water. More likely, it was Russia s top spy masters. The most immediate danger from their excessive zeal is to a deal believed to have been recently struck by President Bush and Mr. Putin.
Mr. Bush has just signed off on Russia s long-desired ascension to the World Trade Organization. Independent experts in Moscow think he did it in exchange for a promise by Mr. Putin to renege on a deal with Iran. Without such an arrangement, Tehran would receive a huge shipment of enriched uranium by spring. It could be used to make nuclear weapons. Where they would be used is anyone s guess.
Mr. Litvinenko s assassination puts us all in harm s way.