Russia sliding darkly
The assassination of former Russian Federal Security Service Col. Alexander Litvinenko in London emphasizes an ominous reading of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public lamentations of the downfall of the Soviet Union in his 2005 state-of-the-nation address. Usually understood in the geopolitical context in which it was made, the remark increasingly applies to the way the former KGB officer’s government handles domestic matters: trampling both the rule of law and freedom of the press, and relying on political killings to silence critics and political opponents. Mr. Putin brought with him fellow KGB officers to fill many of the Kremlin’s top posts, and with them came the KGB’s brutal culture and its heinous tactics — and the poisoning of Mr. Litvinenko with radioactive polonium 210 is a clear manifestation of that culture.
In its foreign policy, Russia has become increasingly belligerent and hostile toward the West, following Mr. Putin’s desire for a more independent and assertive Russia. Mr. Putin wants to use Russia’s energy resources as a foundation for his stated goal of reconstructing a superpower — not a mere “energy superpower” — to overcome what he believes were years of Russian subservience after the Cold War.
Mr. Litvinenko is another in a series of prominent critics and opponents of the Putin government felled by political assassination. Reporter Anna Politkovskaya, a vocal critic of Russian human-rights abuses, was shot to death in the middle of an October day. An early response from the Kremlin blamed the contract killing on Boris Berezovsky — an exiled tycoon that the Kremlin also blamed for the murder of Mr. Litvinenko. In 2004, American journalist Paul Klebnikov was shot eight times as he left his Forbes magazine office. Russian authorities selectively blamed the death on a Chechen separatist, ignoring several other possible theories. More than a dozen reporters have been killed during the Putin years. Details surrounding these political killings have been guarded with such secrecy as to preclude any real investigation, which is to be expected if, as many in the West suspect, those doing the investigating answer to the same government that has been ordering the assassinations.
Scotland Yard’s investigation into the murder of Mr. Litvinenko, a British citizen, should not be subject to such political manipulation. But other than to complain, options for the United States and Europe are limited — the Russian parliament passed a law in June authorizing the Federal Security Service to track down and kill Russia’s enemies in other countries and protecting those agents from prosecution in Russia. The methods of Mr. Putin’s government are familiar to those who remember the Cold War, and what may be left for the West is to treat Mr. Putin’s Russia as the police state that it is becoming.