Dealing With Putin

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Murder is murder."

-- a spokesman for British Prime Minister

Tony Blair

Russia's refusal to extradite the prime suspect in the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London last November reveals the essential amorality of the Putin regime and its false narrative of recent history. That narrative increasingly undermines the Kremlin's relations with Europe and the United States.

Stalin is credited with the view that one man's death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. President Vladimir Putin seems not to grasp his predecessor's point. Britain drives it home by focusing on Litvinenko's death as a straightforward murder investigation driven by rules of evidence and elemental police work rather than an international casus belli.

Mysteries still surround the elimination of Litvinenko, a former KGB security officer and Putin critic who existed on the fringes of London's shadowy world of spies, ex-spies and dissidents. Where did the radioactive poison that he ingested originate? How was it administered? What were the exact motives in his killing? These questions remain publicly unanswered.

But a murder case, especially when it is investigated by Scotland Yard, rivets and illuminates public attention. The brazenness demonstrated in the Litvinenko affair means that Russia "has again become unpredictable, controlled by a narrow clique with a false view of the world and of Russia," writes French strategist Thérèse Delpech in the new English-language edition of "Savage Century," her penetrating look at the ideological and political confusion that has followed the Cold War.

Much of the grief in transatlantic relations of the past decade has stemmed from the conflicting narratives that the United States and Europe wove about the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a new Russia.

Triumphal Americans -- the Bush administration has been overstocked with them -- celebrated Ronald Reagan's defense spending and confrontational strategy as the keys to Western "victory." European leaders, led by Germany's Gerhard Schroeder and France's Jacques Chirac, gave all the credit to the Helsinki peace process and other diplomatic maneuvers that allegedly enshrined reason as the arbiter of Russian and international politics.

Both narratives obscured the reality of the internal collapse of an overextended empire -- and left Russian reformers and gangsters to battle each other for control of a wildly lurching ship of state. In the confusion, the personalization of power replaced consistent policy prescriptions for the Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 administrations.

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