Polonium 210 has become a household name for anyone who follows international news.
In fact, media coverage of the international investigation into the fatal poisoning of a renegade former Russian spy has dominated the news about Russia.
It has even upstaged developments no less ominous than the recent series of high-profile assassinations of dissenting Russians.
Nevertheless, with Russia being the world s largest exporter of fossil fuel, a renewed effort by the Kremlin to grab Russian fossil fuel production not yet under its control deserves more than a passing mention.
Over the past couple of years, the Kremlin bankrupted Yukos, Russia s most successful oil company, to take over its assets.
Until recently, the Kremlin had victimized only Russian companies. But that has changed.
Companies feeling Kremlin-orchestrated bureaucratic pressure to give up their shares in Russia s fossil-fuel production now include TNK-BP, Exxon Mobil Corp., and Royal Dutch Shell.
The Kremlin uses everything from contradictory regulations to environmental control agencies to criminal prosecutors to make sure that Gazprom owns most of Russia s oil fields.
Gazprom also is one of the world s largest natural gas producers and exporters. Much of Europe already relies on Gazprom to heat its cities in winter. They now face the prospect of having Gazprom determine their gasoline prices too.
The problem was aggravated when President Bush signed off on Russia s quest to join the World Trade Organization.
WTO membership would do away with quotas and tariffs on imports from Russia and would increase Gazprom s reach in the West.
It is no secret to independent experts that President Vladimir Putin views his personal control over Gazprom as a tool to extend his personal power beyond 2008, when his second and legally last presidential term expires.
The price for Mr. Bush s cooperation likely was Mr. Putin s promise to be more cooperative in the matter of the Iranian nuclear program.
That cooperation may include a promise by Mr. Putin to cancel a planned shipment to Iran of tons of highly enriched uranium, which can be used to produce nuclear weapons.
With a multibillion-dollar interest in Iran s nuclear industry, Russia has so far resisted the U.S.-led effort to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
But Russia s membership in the WTO in the near future is pretty much a done deal, its assaults on free markets and more public assault on democracy notwithstanding.
The European taxpayer will face the consequences.
But the U.S. taxpayer is still protected by a legal provision left over from the Cold War the 1975 Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the 1974 Trade Act. The amendment bars Russia from free trade with the United States.
In addition to defending us from Mr. Putin s energy hegemony, this amendment remains a powerful lever to be used against the Kremlin, which considers it humiliating.
There have been attempts by lobbyists in Washington to have the amendment repealed. Fortunately, they have failed.
For our own good, it is critical that Jackson-Vanik stay.
The amendment was designed to be a weapon against human-rights abuses in Russia during the Cold War. With Russia backsliding on democracy, it is as justified as ever.