A return to the cold war rhetoric?

Vladimir Radyuhin

Litvinenko's death has conveniently supplied new firepower to the anti-Putin campaign whipped up in the West in reaction to the resurgence of Russia and its increasingly assertive global posture.

IF ONE thought the Cold War was long over, the mysterious death of a former Russian security officer in London last month shattered the impression. Even as the British police grope for clues to explain how the former Lieutenant Colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service, Alexander Litvinenko, happened to inhale or swallow polonium-210, a deadly radioactive substance that killed him, the Western media have made their judgment, pointing the finger at the Kremlin. They have readily embraced Litvinenko's deathbed statement, which accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of killing the 43-year-old renegade spy.

"The suspicion must fall on the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB," The Times of London opined. "It had motive, means and opportunity."

Motive? Litvinenko was a defector and an outspoken critic of the Putin regime. Means? Only a state security service could have pulled off such a sophisticated murder involving a rare radioactive agent. As for opportunity, what could be more incriminating than the fact that Litvinenko met two of his former secret service colleagues from Russia on the day he was poisoned?

In case this evidence failed to convince sceptics, Western scribes recalled that another fierce critic of Mr. Putin, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was gunned down in Moscow barely a month ago. Who else could have committed the two crimes but the Kremlin, which has a long history of murdering its enemies?

"In Cold War days, the Soviets tended to contract out the serious stuff to the Bulgarians and East Germans, and poison was one of their favourite methods," the Los Angeles Times wrote. "These days, Russians presumably have to do their own dirty work."

Not much difference between "Cold War days" and today, is there?

Russia-bashers in the West blissfully ignored the obvious fact that Mr. Putin had nothing to gain and everything to lose by ordering the high-publicity killing of the former security agent. It happened at a time when Russia is trying hard to improve its relations with the West in order to get wider access to high-end technologies for its resurgent economy. Litvinenko died a day before Mr. Putin had a crucial summit with the European Union to discuss a new long-term framework of cooperation between Russia and Europe. The Litvinenko row has all but ruined a costly image-building campaign the Kremlin launched in the West only last month, placing four-page colour supplements "Trendline Russia" in leading Western publications.

Russia's envoy to the EU Sergei Yastrzhembsky suggested the high-profile killing of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko could be part of a "well-orchestrated plan to consistently discredit the Russian Federation and its leader."

There is not a shred of solid evidence to support Western allegations of Kremlin involvement in the killing of Litvinenko, and Mr. Putin dismissed them as "sheer nonsense." But that did not stop media hounds from attacking the Russian leader.

"It is one thing to tyrannise your people; quite another to presume to do so on British territory," The Daily Telegraph of London harangued.

In their efforts to put Mr. Putin in the dock, Western media have been readily exploiting numerous myths about Litvinenko. According to one such myth, Litvinenko was a former "spy" with extensive knowledge of Russian security secrets. While he did serve with the Federal Security Service, or FSB, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB, he had nothing to do with spying or counter-espionage. He was a middle-rank member of the FSB's anti-crime department tasked with busting organised crime rings. Nor was he a turncoat, as it is claimed. He had been fired from the FSB two years before he fled Russia in 2000 after being charged with abuse of office.

There is no truth either in claims that he was a nuisance or a threat to President Putin or other Russian leaders. He did publish two books, which alleged that a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and several other cities in 1999 were the work of the FSB and not Chechen terrorists as official investigation found. But the books (which incidentally were available in Russian bookshops) were a mere repetition of allegations made earlier in Russian and Western media. It is absurd to suggest that somebody would want to kill Litvinenko for these "revelations" five years after they were made.

Litvinenko' recent accusations against the Kremlin read like a madman's ravings. He alleged the involvement of the Russian secret services in the 9/11 attacks, claimed that Al-Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a Russian agent. It takes a great stretch of imagination to describe such a character as a "fierce critic of Putin's regime," and "Kremlin's most outspoken enemy," as the Western media did.

A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Agency, SRV, suggested investigators should look for leads on Litvinenko's death among his contacts in Britain. He was clearly hinting at Litvinenko's long-time patron Boris Berezovsky, who helped him flee Russia, bought him a house in London, and financed the publication of his books. The fugitive Russian billionaire, who was given asylum in Britain, has publicly vowed to bring down Mr. Putin through a "change of regime in Moscow."

The Russian media have recalled that several years ago Mr. Berezovsky was quoted as saying that it may be necessary to make a "ritual sacrifice" eliminate some prominent Russian oppositionists in order to cast a shadow on Mr. Putin. The murder of liberal journalist Politkovskaya, gunned down in Moscow on Mr. Putin's birthday, and the agonising death in London of an "enemy of the Putin regime" both looked like "ritual killings" and stirred a new round of the anti-Russia campaign in the West.

According to another theory offered by Russian analysts, Litvinenko could have accidentally poisoned himself while handling polonium-210. Litvinenko's Italian contact Mario Scaramella testified that the deceased Russian told him he had been involved in smuggling radioactive material from Russia way back in 2000. It cannot be ruled out that Litvinenko was back at his illegal business recently. He could have been planning to sell polonium-210 to Chechen rebels or helping them to make a "dirty" nuclear bomb. Some time ago Mr. Berezovsky claimed the Chechens had a "dirty bomb." The Chechens had also become Litvinenko's close friends. So close that he had converted to Islam on his deathbed and asked to be buried in a Muslim cemetery, according to the former field commander Akhmed Zakayev, who lives in London as a refugee.

There is room for other theories as well, involving, for example, Litvinenko's plans to blackmail Russian businessmen and officials. Any of these theories would be more plausible than the one pinning the blame for his death on the Kremlin.

Yet, it is this theory that Western media have so single-mindedly embraced.

"Poisoning a British citizen on British soil demonstrates a new level of chutzpah even for the Putin regime," Britain's The Spectator declares in a story headlined "The Long Arm of Putin." "Meet today's Murder Inc. headquartered in the Kremlin," The Washington Times echoes from across the Atlantic.

Litvinenko's death has conveniently supplied new firepower to the anti-Putin campaign whipped up in the West in reaction to the resurgence of Russia and its increasingly assertive global posture. As seen from Moscow, the campaign, orchestrated from Washington, has two main objectives hamper Mr. Putin's efforts to build closer economic and political ties with Europe and push the 2008 U.S. election agenda of both the Democrats and the Republicans. While Democrats are playing the anti-Russia card to show that President George W. Bush misread his "friend Putin's soul," Republicans are trying to demonstrate firmness in dealing with Russia.

Britain, as usual, is ready to play up to its big brother. Even as Russia offered full assistance to the British police investigation into Litvinenko's death, Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed defiantly to allow "no diplomatic barrier" to stand in the way of the probe. And his Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, took a political swipe at Mr. Putin accusing him of "attacks on individual liberty and on democracy."

Ironically, Western attacks on Mr. Putin have only made him more popular with his Russian constituency. Polls show that Mr. Putin's approval ratings have recently soared to an all-time high of 78 per cent. This may be one reason why Moscow is reacting with remarkable restraint to the Western smear campaign, which may eventually boomerang on its organisers.

As British Home Secretary John Reid remarked the other day, commenting on the media coverage of Litvinenko's death, "The worst thing we can do is speculate. We will end up with egg on our face."