Russian Roulette; the Poisoning of a Kremlin Critic Has the World Asking How Dangerous Moscow Has Become
Hirsch, Micahel, Matthews, Owen, Newsweek
Byline: Michael Hirsh and Owen Matthews (With Anna Nemtsova in Moscow, Mark Hosenball in Europe and Stryker McGuire, Ginanne Brownell and William Underhill in London)
Alexander Litvinenko said a lot of outrageous things when he was alive. He claimed that Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a Russian agent. He alleged that he had a tape of Russian President Vladimir Putin having sex with another man. And he declared, just before dying, that his enemies in the FSB, Russia's secret service, had poisoned him in order to silence him. Some of Litvinenko's allegations were hard to believe. But as British and FBI investigators followed a radioactive trail left by the deadly isotope, polonium 210, that killed the Russian exile on Nov. 23--finding traces of it on planes from Moscow to London--they began to believe he might have been on to something. Litvinenko, hairless and ghostly pale, had devoted his last minutes of consciousness to fingering the FSB and Putin himself. "You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed," the former FSB lieutenant colonel turned dissident said on his deathbed. "The howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."
The Kremlin called Litvinenko's allegation "nothing but nonsense." Putin himself dismissively suggested that Litvinenko might have been "sacrificed" by his dissident allies as a ploy to cast blame on Moscow. British investigators last week cautioned that they had turned up nothing that led to any particular suspect. Some suggested that Litvinenko's poisoning was done too sloppily for the culprit to have been the FSB, the successor to the fabled KGB. Professional hits are supposed to be neat, quiet affairs. But so many traces of polonium 210 were found in London restaurants, hotels and posh neighborhoods like Mayfair that British tabloids began to run radiation scare! headlines. Authorities said some 33,000 British Airways passengers may have been exposed, though the health risks were considered minor.
Still, the fears in London reflected the unease in many Western capitals about the kind of place Russia has become. Grown richer on gas and oil profits, an increasingly haughty Russia has begun to behave like an international bully, U.S. and European officials complain. After a decade in which it meekly accepted its status as a second-rate power, Russia has cut off fuel supplies to the Europeans, strong-armed former Soviet satellites like Ukraine and Georgia, obstructed Washington over sanctions against Iran and harassed U.S. companies in Russia.
Equally worrisome, Russia has become a nation where corruption is systemic, where the only order and security come from bribes and protection rackets and contract killings are as common as buyouts on Wall Street. Politics and profits are so intertwined that top Kremlin officials control some of the country's biggest companies. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev is also chairman of Gazprom, the $220 billion gas monopoly. Presidential administration deputy chief Igor Sechin is head of the giant state oil company, Rosneft, and Putin aide Viktor Ivanov chairs national air-carrier Aeroflot, as well as the main air-defense contractor, Almaz-Antei. "We used to have a private oligarchy--now we have an oligarchy drawn from the secret police," says former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, referring to the KGB background of many of Putin's advisers. Indeed, some U.S. and European officials suggest that Putin's Russia now has the characteristics of a fascist state. "There's no longer a sense that Russia is just on the other side of the divide but still within the family," says Stephen Sestanovich, a former top Russia adviser in Democratic and Republican administrations. "The Russians are no longer the errant cousins. They're looking like a different gang altogether."
One thing is certain: enemies of the Kremlin and its many business interests have been turning up suspiciously dead lately. …