Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Does the West have a "Russian Problem"?

In earlier years, scholars of modern Germany regularly spoke of the "German Problem." This was the historical dilemma of a powerful German state in the heart of the European continent, a nation generally more dynamic than its neighbors and not content to live within its defined geographical boundaries. The German Problem was seen as the primary cause of the World Wars, and containing German power in the center of Europe was one of the pillars of Western defense policy during the Cold War.

I'm reminded of the German Problem in recent commentary surrounding Russia and the Litvinenko murder from atomic poisoning.
David Satter's Wall Street Journal commentary piece last week put things like this:

Until a week ago, Alexander Litvinenko, a former colonel in the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, was virtually unknown outside the murky world of Russian intelligence. With his death in London from a massive dose of the radioactive element polonium 210, however, his fate may lead to a fundamentally different relationship between Russia and the West.
Will the prospect of a "Russian Problem" form the basis for Western dealings with Russia going forward? This week's Newsweek has an interesting analysis of the implications of Litvinenko's death for international relations. The piece examines the speculation surrounding alleged Kremlin involvement in the poisoning, and notes that some are arguing the killing was messy and unprofessional, not the quality of spywork expected of Russia's FSB:

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. A month before Litvinenko's murder, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of Putin's war in Chechnya, was shot to death at her Moscow apartment. The Litvinenko poisoning was the most brazen attack yet, occurring in the heart of London in early November. Despite the failure to find a culprit, intelligence assessments sent to the White House by last weekend indicated that most theories pointed back to Russia.

Most experts agreed that the killer's use of polonium 210 was the hardest evidence tying the assassination to elements inside the Russian government. In the quantity that killed Litvinenko, the obscure isotope could be obtained only from a nuclear reactor or a nuclear-powered sub. "It is not at all easy to get hold of," says Boris Zhukov, head of the radioisotope laboratory of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Nuclear Research Institute. "And absolutely impossible outside state control, at least in Russia." Some U.S. and British intel sources, however, suggest the polonium 210 that killed Litvinenko could have come from some place besides Russia.

According to a classified U.S. intelligence bulletin on the case that was described to NEWSWEEK, one theory among many is that the culprits could be rogue elements of the FSB. A possible suspect is a quasi-mythical group called Dignity and Honor, an alleged organization of ex-spies who target Kremlin critics on their own initiative. "We are talking about death squads here, like the ones they had in Latin America, of former KGB special units who are experienced in war, intelligence and murder," says Aleksei Venediktov, director of Ekho Moskvy, a prominent radio station, and one of Moscow's best-connected commentators. "These people lost everything in '90s. They felt betrayed first by [Boris] Yeltsin and then by Putin. Beginning in about 1998, they formed private groups, radical and militarized. Their aim is to kill enemies of the motherland." (One case is under investigation, though no murders have yet been conclusively tied to such groups.)

But if Putin was blameless in the Litvinenko killing, he didn't exactly jump into the investigation, either. "Why isn't Putin saying, 'This is awful and we will help you track the responsibility wherever it goes'?" asks Sestanovich. "Their own words and actions here convict them, if not of direct responsibility then at least of an approach and attitude toward a crime like this that is way out of the mainstream." Asked about the possibility of rogue FSB killers, one senior U.S. official who deals with Russia cautioned against making the same mistake President Truman once did when he remarked that "poor Stalin" was a "prisoner of the Politburo." Putin, a former KGB colonel, "is a very smart man; he keeps his eye on detail," said the official, who would speak about the case only anonymously.

Even if the Russian president weren't directly involved in Litvinenko's killing or other assassinations, it is clear that extremist elements in his security apparatus think they can act with impunity. Last June, after the murder of Russian diplomats in Iraq, Russia's rubber-stamp Parliament authorized assassination of "terrorists" anywhere in the world—not that the lack of such a law stopped the KGB (or indeed FSB) in the past. Vladimir Ryzhkov, a deputy in Russia's Duma, believes that the motive in murders like Litvinenko's is "not to just get rid of individuals, but to lead a psychological campaign to threaten the mass of people back home. The message is, 'You are next'." But most contract murders in Russia tend to be disputes over money, not politics, investigators say.

U.S. officials caution that not all is going bad with Russia. Moscow is cooperating on nuclear nonproliferation and recently agreed to terms for entry into the World Trade Organization. President George W. Bush still has "a very good personal relationship" with Putin, says a senior Bush administration official who would talk only on condition of anonymity. "They can discuss anything."

Even so, U.S. officials fear that corporate interests have become so dominant in Russia that the West can no longer depend on statesmanlike behavior out of Moscow. Many senior Kremlin figures, for example, have strong financial interests in continuing to trade nukes and conventional weapons with Iran. "The only institution that works in Russia anymore is the Kremlin," says the U.S. official who deals with Moscow. Whether the Kremlin is also working to silence its critics may be a secret that dies with people like Alexander Litvinenko.

If there is an emerging Russia Problem menacing both critics of Moscow and the Western alliance, it's not likely to be on the scale of the German threat to the balance of power in the 20th century. The strategic nuclear balance between the United States and Russian has collapsed. Analysts speak of the United States now possessing nuclear primacy in international relations, with the old MAD doctrine of mutually guaranteed obliteration no longer applicable in contemporary power politics. Still, Russia's demonstrated an independent streak recently in world affairs, and some scholars are warning against a new great power rivalry centered on the rise of Russian reassertiveness.

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