Cost of a thaw with Russia

Almost five years ago, on November 1, 2006, Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former KGB officer and self-exiled dissident, ingested a rare and highly toxic radioactive isotope, polonium 210, from a teapot at a hotel in Grosvenor Square.

By Alan Cowell

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Published: Mon 19 Sep 2011, 9:03 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:56 AM

Three weeks and one day later, he was dead after an excruciating decline. Almost to the last, investigators and physicians had no idea what killed him. And by the time the cause emerged, Litvinenko had died, never knowing what took his life. In a contentious, deathbed testament read out by a friend, Litvinenko laid the murder firmly at the door of the Kremlin and its boss, Vladimir V. Putin, who was then president.

“You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life,” the declaration said. On Dec. 7, 2006, Litvinenko, who had acquired British citizenship weeks before the poisoning, was buried at Highgate Cemetery in London, just across the way from the tomb of Karl Marx.

The British authorities demanded the extradition on murder charges of Andrei K. Lugovoi, a former business associate, and ex-KGB bodyguard, who had been with Litvinenko on Nov. 1 in the Millennium Hotel. When Russia refused, Britain expelled four of Moscow’s diplomats. Russia kicked out four Britons. A chill settled, reminiscent of the Cold War.

It is worth recalling some of the detail, the drama and the flavour of those days because, just this week, it seemed as if another kind of burial political, diplomatic, pragmatic was under way when Prime Minister David Cameron visited Moscow and seemed to signal readiness for a thaw. True, Cameron made clear that the British legal system did not permit Britain to drop its demand for the extradition of Lugovoi, who has long proclaimed his innocence.

“But at the same time,” he told Russians, “we have a responsibility to recognise the many ways in which we do need each other, to end the old culture of tit-for-tat and find ways for us to work together to advance our mutual interests.” And in case anyone failed to understand the nature of those mutual interests, contracts were signed for business deals worth 215 million pounds, or $340 million hardly a high price for the British offer to step around the central question: could a British citizen be murdered with impunity in Britain at the whim of hostile outsiders? (The answer so far: yes.)

But Cameron’s proselytising in Russia rests on a marked geopolitical asymmetry. By any measure of geographic scale or natural resources, Britain is no match for Russia. The rules have changed from those governing equal contenders in the 19th-century Great Game to the 21st-century realpolitik of energy and trade. As some analysts suggested, Cameron’s voyage to Moscow aligned Britain with such European allies as France and Germany in a vision of Moscow through a prism of energy supplies and contracts. Putin may be popular with many Russians, Brenton wrote in The Daily Telegraph, but “Russia’s ruling elite has become immovable and predatory, elections are fixed, corruption is on a par with Nigeria, the legal system is pliable, and the police and security agencies untouchable.”

When Cameron traveled to Moscow this week, he sought to amuse his hosts by telling a story of what had seemed like a clumsy attempt by the KGB to recruit him when he visited the Soviet Union during a year off from college in 1985. As the death of Litvinenko and Russia’s subsequent refusal to extradite the man accused of being his killer seemed to show, however, it is rarely wise to seek to make light of the KGB, or its alumni.

Alan Cowell also writes for International Herald Tribune

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