An attempt has been made to kill Alexander Litvinenko One of Boris Berezovsky's allies in London. This piece from The Times gives a flavour of the man.
I occasionally meet refugees from the regime in Russia who have come out of the looking glass world of the secret services. Oleg Gordievsky, a highly successful agent- for the British, or Vasili Mitrohkin who brought much of the KGB archive into the public domain. I think Westerners often find the cloak and dagger brutality of the Soviet state very difficult to believe.
It is always a salutary experience reading the books of Viktor Suvorov , especially Aquarium, his personal history as a GRU- Soviet military intelligence- officer. The murderous brutality of the machine is made entirely plain. It is interesting to see how short people's memories are- the mysterious and very convenient death of Stephen Curtis of Bank Menatep in a helicopter accident seems to have been long forgotten.
Modern Russia is led by a former KGB officer. We did not allow a Gestapo officer to take power in Germany after the fall of the Nazi's. Yet the West, in the same way as it tolerates the iconography of Communism- Hammer and Sickle, Soviet jeans and all- still tolerates ex-Communists in a way that would be impossible about ex-Nazis.
The only difference between Soviet Socialism and National Socialism is that Soviet Socialism killed more people.
In modern Russia, the former KGB has splintered and many have gone freelance. The direct successor organisation, the FSB, retains many of the vile traditions of its depraved predecessor, but there are other groups who use the same methods for different ends.
The use of a relatively sophisticated poison as Thallium clearly indicates a post KGB link. The question is, which one? After all Mr. Litvinenko and his patron, Mr. Berezovsky, have many enemies. Is it the FSB determined to kill a traitorous former officer of the KGB? Is it pro-Moscow Chechens, allied but not controlled by, the Kremlin. Is it a more interesting game of bluff, trying to pin the blame on the Kremlin in order to discredit the Putin government?
Some commentators, such as Mary Dejevsky in The Independent, have seized on this last possibility and attempted to exonerate the Kremlin. However, this is to ignore the fundamental problem. The fact is that all of these possibilities could be true, and the reason why they could be true is because of the lawlessness at the very heart of the Russian State. FSB operatives do not act within the law, not even Russian law. The brutality of Leninism and Stalinism, which continued throughout the Cold War, has not been ended by the fall of the Soviet State. Whatever the precise origin of the plot to kill Alexander Litvinenko, the climate that has fostered the plot is the direct result of the Kremlin's failure to clean up government in the post-Soviet era, so for that alone Putin must take the responsibility- regardless of the immediate source of the poisonous Thallium.
Perhaps the bitterest irony of Putin's return to Authoritarianism- the use of violence, but also the reimposition of State power in key sectors of the Russian economy- is that it has failed so abjectly. The exclusion of foreigners from the Russian oil and gas sectors has left those sectors now unable to deliver the gas that they have already contracted to sell. Eliminating competition and the creation of behemoth national champions such as Rosneft in oil or Gazprom in gas will not improve the position of Russia one jot- it will merely concentrate power still further, reducing efficiency and increasing corruption.
Already the level and costs of corruption under Putin is higher than it was under Yeltsin.
Russia is to be feared- the savagery of its post-KGB leadership is as vile as ever. However we should perhaps fear Russian weakness even more. The drastic fall in the life expectancy of the Slavic Russians is a sharp contrast with the increase in the size of the North Caucasian nationalities. Although the population of Russia could fall below 100 million by 2040, the population of Chechens is growing, so their relative preponderance will increase -fast. This is not a recipe for stability in the key strategic area of the Caucasus region.
The failure of Gazprom or Rosneft to make the right investments will reduce their potential capacity at a time when Western Europe is increasing its dependence on Russian gas. The Russians will not be able to supply Western needs as the result of their failure to open up their energy industries. This is a problem as serious as the likely chance that Russia would use energy supplies as a political weapon against the Western European states, as it already has against Ukraine and other countries in the East.
Corruption will continue to increase as the result of the murders of those who challenge it- when even Politkovskaya is murdered, what are the chances for less internationally well-known figures?
Meanwhile the attempted murder of Litvinenko, who is a British citizen, in the British capital reminds us that the brutality of Russia, official and unofficial, is unabated. If we do not remind ourselves of this on a regular basis, we might not notice the effect of Russian money on ourselves: the question marks over Gerhard Schroders lucrative personal contracts with Russian oil and gas interests might give us pause for thought about our own leaders' relationship with Russia, at any level.
The stakes are high, the game is dangerous. We must renew our guard against those who would corrupt us, use energy supplies as a weapon or even kill us.
However we should continue to force Russia to face up to its responsibilities- the post Putin world is taking shape. There is still a chance to create a decentralised, pluralist Russia, a country that finds that competition makes it stronger, and not weaker. However it will take clear heads in the West. With Bush damaged, Blair and Chirac in their final months in office, it may fall to Angela Merkel to provide clear-eyed vision. However, she will struggle to overcome the fears of Russo-German collaboration that lie deep rooted in Central Europe. In the end it will be Britain that will have to engage- but if Blair can not, will Gordon Brown be able to?