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Poisonous Air over Russia

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
December 1, 2006

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At first blush, the poisoning death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko by a dose of highly radioactive polonium-210 evokes memories of a Cold War mystery in London from a generation ago. In 1978, Bulgarian émigré writer Georgi Markov was done in by a poison pellet (RFE/RL) shot or plunged into his skin by an umbrella, a murder linked by many experts to Moscow. But the Litvinenko affair is raising alarm on a broader scale (BBC), in part because of public health fears—radioactive traces have been found on London-to-Moscow flights in the past month and thousands may have been exposed to the substance. In addition, the sudden grave illness of former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar the day after Litvinenko’s death has aroused concerns he was deliberately targeted.

Litvinenko had accused the Kremlin of involvement in a number of terror attacks such as a series of 1999 Russian apartment bombings, and issued a deathbed statement casting blame (Times Online) on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hoover Institution fellow David Satter also points a finger (WSJ) at Putin, saying the former Russian spy’s death fits the pattern of people killed investigating the 1999 Russian bombings, which set the stage for the second Chechen war and Putin’s rise in popularity. Russian officials vehemently deny such charges and have offered full cooperation (RIA Novosti) with British authorities investigating the Litvinenko death and radiation trail.

The incident taps into a broadening sense of unease in the West about developments in Russia, which has grown increasingly assertive as an energy superpower while backtracking on democratic reforms. Last month, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization warned of Russian plans to create a natural gas cartel to use as leverage against Western states, but Russian officials denied this, saying they were committed to offering gas at market prices (Reuters). The most recent criticism came from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which said Russia’s high-level corruption and expanding state control of sectors such as energy and finance threaten the country’s long-term prospects. Key to understanding Russian behavior, write Ian Bremmer and Samuel Charap in the new Washington Quarterly, is the role of the security-business clique known as the “siloviki” (PDF).

Russia also holds crucial leverage over one of Washington’s abiding security concerns—Iran’s nuclear program—but has been unwilling to consider tough sanctions in UN Security Council deliberations. A CFR Task Force report on U.S.-Russia relations earlier this year stressed the importance of a common strategy between Moscow and Washington on Iran. But the report also encouraged the Bush administration to accelerate the integration of Russia’s neighbors into Western organizations. A Russian backlash against this effort has occurred, especially in Georgia. Former U.S. diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke says Putin is going all out to undermine pro-democracy President Mikhail Saakashvili (WashPost). But Nikolas K. Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest, says Holbrooke’s argument ignores Russia’s legitimate interests in the region and is hypocritical given Washington’s own treatment of neighbors such as Cuba.

Amid darkening views about Russia, some experts see a spark of hope in the newly announced U.S.-Russia agreement over the latter’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Panelists at a recent Carnegie Endowment meeting agreed the formal participation of Russia in a global trade body could boost rule of law (PDF) in a wide range of areas. Soon after that agreement was made, Russia announced it was resuming wine imports (BBC) from Moldova. As a WTO member, Moldova will have to approve Russia’s entry into the group. 

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