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Don’t Mess with Russia

The best cover I’ve seen from the Economist since their depiction of Kim Jong-Il as the Rocket Man.

Given the lack of hard evidence available to Russia watchers, their conclusion couldn’t be more accurate:

Don’t. Mess. With. Russia.

(Especially given how handy Putin looks with a petrol pump).

Putin Economist Cover

The Economist goes on to analyse the Litvinenko Murder. [T]he fact that people jumped to this conclusion [that the Kremlin was responsible for Litvineko’s death] says much about the image created by Mr Putin’s capricious seven-year presidency…

It would not be fair to conclude from any of this that the Kremlin is guilty as charged. But it all amounts to yet another sign that the hopes entertained in the West about Mr Putin when he first took office—that he actually meant what he then said about democracy, and that under his rule Russia could conceivably become a “normal” country—were misplaced. There have been many such signs, from barbarity in the north Caucasus to harassment of foreign oil firms and meddlesome foreign policy. But perhaps none has publicised the murk and cruelty of life in Russia so effectively as the mysterious death of an unimportant man.


  • What makes you think the imperialist countries are “normal”? Because you, personally, are making out okay maybe?

    But then everyone else is just envious, right?

  • Yes, “normal” is quite a loaded word.

    Perhaps a better way to put it would be to say that hopes that Russia could become a “well-managed, democratic” country have been dashed by Putin.

    (By the way – there was a formatting error in the above post. The last paragraph should have been in blockquotes, as they are the Economist’s words, not mine. Fixed now).

  • LENIN: Are you saying Russia ISN’T imperialist?

    ANDY: Obviously, if the KGB murdered Litvinenko on Putin’s orders, direct evidence of their involvement would be hard to come by, if not impossible. It’s a professional, well-funded organization and even mafia hits often go unsolved. So my question to you is: How many enemies of the Kremlin would have to be murdered before it would be safe for us to conclude that the Kremlin is responsible?

    On the otherh hand, I couldn’t agree more strongly with you and the Economist that it really doesn’t matter whether Putin ordered the hit or not, because it’s perfectly credible that he might have done so. Not even the most hardened Russophile quack would say Putin couldn’t have done such a thing, that it’s not in his character, as this article from the Russian press also agrees:

    This has been clear for quite some time now, but it’s only after a direct attack on Western soil that we begin to wake up to the need to act on it. Same thing happened with the Bolshevik revolution, quite disappointing in terms of our ability to learn from our mistakes.

  • Kim – I’d agree that Putin, or the Kremlin, could have ordered this killing.  Previous form makes the Kremlin one of the key – probably even the primary – suspect.

    However, I am concerned that solid evidence confirming that Putin actually did give the order is – so far – nonexistent. In fact, there are plenty of reasonably plausible theories as to who else might have wanted to kill Litvinenko, as well as a number of plausible theories as to why Putin (or his colleagues in the Kremlin) wouldn’t have given the order for Litvinenko’s killing.

    What we have at the moment, is supposition built on a foundation of rumour, and I think it would, therefore, be imprudent to directly accuse the Kremlin of involvement at this stage.

    Not least, because, if we are actually wrong on this, it will further embolden the Kremlin in future, as embarrassed Western governments and analysts lose the credibility needed to truly hold it to task.

  • ANDY:
    Leaving aside whether we are right or wrong, we are dealing with a regime that is, fundamentally, evil. It could have killed Litvinenko, it could have killed Politkovskaya, and it could kill, say Garry Kasparov, tomorrow morning. In light of that, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to use our best guess as motivation to action before it is too late. Russia has not submitted itself to the standards of criminal justice of Britain or America, so it has no right to claim their protection.

    But I’ll play along with you too:

    First, I have to call your bluff. Let’s say that we get “solid evidence” that fully satisfies you that Vladimir Putin personally ordered this execution. In that case, what sort of action would you be prepared to support as a response.

    I also have to call you on the carpet: I asked you a question and you didn’t answer. How many? 100? 1,000? 10,000? ARE there 10,000 dissidents in Russia today?

    Finally, I’m disappointed that you only look at one side of the risk equation. Sure, if we’re wrong, there are consequences. But if we wait and do nothing, that also has severe negative consequences (Chamberlain was a big man on waiting for “solid evidence”). Why do you feel the one outweighs the other?

  • Kim, I’m not entirely sure what you are asking when you say ‘conclude that the Kremlin is responsible’. Responsible for what? The killing of Litvinenko? The killing of all anti-Kremlin dissidents?

    Anyway, assuming that hard evidence does turn up implicating individuals in the Kremlin of Litvinenko’s murder, then I’m perfectly happy to call for a strong response. In particular by the British government, but also by other governments around the world.

    At a minimum I’d expect those individuals to be extradited for trial in the UK. Any ‘action’ against Russia by the UK would very much depend on whether the Russian government agreed to extradite the suspects, but I’d suspect it would mainly focus on trying to humiliate Russia by withdrawing diplomats, trying to kick them out of the G8, blocking any EU deals with Russia. The difficulty that the UK government would face is that there is a limit to the level of action they can take, and I wonder if they can dole out more punishment than the Russian bear could absorb.

    If Putin himself was implicated (although I very much doubt any evidence will turn up) I’d hope that he found his domestic position untenable. If not, then other countries – particularly the UK – are going to find themselves in a very difficult position, as they try to make their displeasure clear without escalating the issue into a confrontation that pushes Russia into a corner. I honestly don’t know how I’d react to this, and I wouldn’t envy those in government who have to think up a policy.

  • Russia has already said it won’t extradite anybody for trial on these crimes.

    I don’t think you should say we shouldn’t blame Putin without evidence unless you’re prepared to say what you’d do if he were proved to have ordered the killing. Because basically what you are saying is that even if we had evidence that wouldn’t change much. Verbal condemnation means nothing once he’s been proved guilty. You have no plan of action to deal with the sitution you want us to wait for, and to me that’s simply unacceptable.

    You still haven’t answered my question. How many Kremlin enemies would have to die unnaturally before you’d admit the Kremlin was responsible? 100? 1,000? 10,000?

  • Kim – I would expect the British government to insist that the Russian government make an exception to its rules on extradition if someone within the Kremlin were identified as worthy of a trial. Laws can be changed.

    The reason I haven’t yet answered your question on numbers was because I was unclear on what exactly you were asking, and asked you to clarify the question.

    I don’t have a plan of action if it is proved that Putin ordered Litvinenko’s murder. Do you?

  • I should clarify my last statement – when I say “I would expect…”, I mean this is what I would want the British government to do, and would call on them to do.

    It doesn’t mean that this is what I expect they actually will do.

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