- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2006

When the wolf at the door is big enough, the easiest way to deal with him is to invite him in for supper and hope he’s content to eat just the wife and kids.

This is the strategy much of the West, particularly Europe, has adopted for dealing with the threat of the Islamic fascists to put the world under Shariah law, and it may be the way the leaders of the West choose to deal with a resurgence of fascism in the remnants of the old Soviet Union.

Our English cousins are in justifiable dudgeon over the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the one-time colonel in the Russian secret police who fled Russia, landed in London and became an Englishman (sort of). When Mr. Litvinenko started asking too many questions about the murder of a Russian journalist who was making trouble for the Kremlin, he was poisoned with radioactive polonium 210 and doomed to an agonizing death.

Nearly everybody assumes, rightly or wrongly, that the Russian government, probably with the assent if not the encouragement of Vladimir Putin, ordered the hit and assigned the hit man. The hit has all the marks of a job by the KGB — or the Federal Security Service, as the Russians now call the KGB — even down to the sinister and esoteric choice of poison, polonium 210, which is familiar to nuclear scientists. Swallowed, breathed and taken through a wound, polonium 210 destroys the internal organs, and death is slow, painful and sure. There is no antidote.

There’s speculation that Mr. Litvinenko’s death will change the relationship between Russia and the West, or at least between Russia and the leaders of the West who still have a pulse. The incident recalls in dramatic fashion the bad old days of the Cold War, suggesting that the “new” Russia is not much different from the old one. The Putin-controlled Russian television networks reported the death in the same surreal way that the old communist commentators reported the sudden deaths of inconvenient critics of the state: Mr. Litvinenko did not die of poison, but of “intrigues” in the Russian exile community in London. Mr. Litvinenko was “a pawn in a game that he did not understand.”

Murder becomes merely a bureaucratic exercise in Mr. Putin’s “new” Russia. His secret police are known to take a close interest in critics of the “new” Russia. Boris Berezovsky, once the deputy chief of the Russian security council but now an exile in Britain, befriended Mr. Litvinenko when he arrived in London. He learned of the boast of the Russian security police that it “knows what he eats for breakfast, where he has lunch and where he buys his groceries.”

Earlier this year, the Russian legislature enacted a law authorizing the Russian president to order the termination with extreme prejudice of “terrorists” in foreign countries. Unnecessary, but bureaucrats everywhere like to have a piece of paper in hand, duly signed and decorated with the appropriate signatures, ribbons and seals.

Vladimir Putin is clearly not the man the West imagined it saw when he assumed power, nor is he any longer likely the man George W. Bush once described as “a man I can do business with.” Says David Satter, a Russian scholar at the Hoover Institution writing in the Wall Street Journal: “In the last six years, the makeup of the ruling elite in Russia has undergone a dramatic change. Once in power, Mr. Putin filled the majority of important posts with veterans of the security services, many with ties to him dating back to his work in St. Petersburg. … Russia was already highly corrupt under Boris Yeltsin, but according to IDEM, an independent Russian think tank, with the rise of oil prices, the level of corruption in Russia between 2002 and 2005 increased 900 percent. The result of these developments was that Mr. Putin created [a state security apparatus] ruling class. As this class became rooted, the victims of contract killers began to include some of the most prominent political figures in the country.”

Mr. Bush, like Tony Blair, may still regard Vladimir Putin as a man he can do business with. Presidents and prime ministers must have a certain polite tolerance for people they rightly loathe, however difficult civility may be. It’s a cost, you might say, of doing business. The rest of us must hope that that civility is all it is. Mr. Putin presides over what looks like “a mafia of peace,” which is about as harmless as “the religion of peace.”

Pruden on Politics appears Tuesdays and Fridays

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