** RUSSIAN PROBLEMS AND OPPORTUNITIES. The sensational London murder of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko by radiation poisoning, coming as it does on the heels of the gunning down last month in Moscow of prominent journalist Anna Politkovskaya, would seem to presage a new time of tension between what we used to call the West and the East. Yet behind the scenes, Russia is being more helpful to the US than is commonly realized.
None of which is to say that the regime of former KGB colonel and St. Petersburg deputy mayor-turned-Russian President Vladimir Putin is not problematic. More than a dozen journalistic critics of the unique way of doing things in Russia have been murdered in the last few years. This includes Politkovskaya, a staunch critic of the war in Chechnya and of Putin, as well as the editor of Forbes Russia, an American citizen, no less, gunned down on the streets of Moscow. All of the Russian journalist murders remain unsolved.
Were New West Notes operating in Russia, I wouldn’t simply be kidding around about packing heat, as I do with Jerry and Anne Brown before coming to Oakland.
Notwithstanding the current veneer of designer clothes and luxury brands, not to mention the world’s largest urban agglomeration of billionaires, Moscow is something of a Wild West city, and has been for years, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall gave rise to Chanel envy. In the ’90s, I advised one of the Russian reform political parties. One of the party’s prominent members was placed with me, among others, by the U.S. State Department to learn about American politics. He spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time on the phone to Moscow. Not infrequently, he would tell me about prominent party members who had been shot or mugged. While he ended up in the Duma, the Russian parliament, it would be hard to say that my advisor role was highly successful. The last time I checked, the party’s web site was a porn site.
The advent of Putin has brought a new measure of pride to a Russia reeling from the loss of the prideful Soviet empire and the rise of buccaneeer capitalism. A friend of mine, a Russian emigre, used to fantasize about being Putin’s daughter. The fact that she, a model, is nearly a half-foot taller than the diminutive power broker did not diminish her regard. The return of some power and a measure of prestige to what was, until 15 years ago, one of the world’s two superpowers, can’t be underestimated.
But this pride seems problematical. Litvinenko, who wrote of what he described as the extreme corruption and ruthlessness of Putin’s Russia, claimed before he died that he was murdered on order of the president. As the Russian saying goes, who can really say?
Nevertheless, the fact that clearly political murders routinely go unsolved in one of the world’s major cities is more than a bit suspicious.
That said, no one should become too excited about a possible return of a US/Russia cold war. Russia, according to sources, has been a regular source of intelligence about the Islamic Jihadist threat, from providing the best mapping of Afghanistan onward. Putin, following two private meetings with President George W. Bush over the past week, has agreed to back America’s play in pressuring Iran to forestall its nuclear weapons program. And Russia is playing a backchannel role with regard to the emerging US priority for Iran to help settle the Iraq crisis. Even as it delivers rockets to protect Iranian nuclear facilities from possible air strikes.
So those looking to the Bush Administration to raise a hue and cry about the Litvinenko and Politkovskaya murders may be disappointed. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair may hold his tongue, despite the sensational murder of Litvinenko in his own capital city. Though I rather doubt that. Someone went too far. London is capital of the English-speaking rodina.
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