Hoover Daily Report

Revisiting a Pre-Olympic Murder

via Wall Street Journal
Friday, February 21, 2014

During the Sochi Olympics, Vladimir Putin has received a lot of grief about the state of the rule of law in Russia. He's not alone. Highly advanced countries have problems with the rule of law too—because of their need to maintain relations with Putin's Russia.

Example: the United Kingdom, on whose soil an unprecedented act of small-scale nuclear terrorism was committed in the 2006 murder by polonium poisoning of a Russian dissident and author, Alexander Litvinenko.

A trail of highly radioactive polonium across London wherever Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB agent and now a member of the Russian Duma, happened to be visiting was hard to ignore. Mr. Lugovoi would eventually be charged with the killing, though the Kremlin has refused to extradite him and Mr. Lugovoi denies the accusation.

Britain's government has appeared less enthusiastic to explore who ordered the assassination or supplied the esoteric murder weapon. In the latest development, the coroner in charge of the case, Sir Robert Owen, has taken to complaining in court that the government of Prime Minister David Cameron is preventing him from considering evidence that, in his words, "establishes a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state."

OK, Russia is a nuclear power. Mr. Putin is a necessary if fractious partner for many things Western governments want to do, including protect a lucrative BP BP.LN -0.08% oil venture that was threatened with prosecution over a "tax" matter in the middle of the Litvinenko row.

But what of the dead author's apparent offense? He wrote a book about the September 1999 apartment block bombings in Moscow and other cities, blamed on Chechen terrorists, that abruptly stopped after residents in the city of Ryazan caught federal security agents sneaking sacks of explosive and bomb parts into the basement of a building, in what the Kremlin later claimed was a training exercise.

Almost 15 years later, many experts have come to believe Litvinenko was right. The bombings, which killed nearly 300 Russians, were a state provocation designed to propel an unknown security bureaucrat, Mr. Putin, into the presidency to protect the outgoing Yeltsin circle from a corruption investigation. The New York Review of Books, not normally a fan of Hoover Institution writings, said a 2012 book by Hoover scholar John Dunlop provided an "overwhelming case." The late Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire Yeltsin backer who took credit for recruiting Mr. Putin in the first place, held a press conference to endorse the charge. Polls show a sizeable minority of Russians believe it.

And yet have you heard, even leaked, a U.S. intelligence opinion about whether the murderous terrorist attacks were in fact engineered by Mr. Putin's own supporters to assure his rise? You haven't. And that alone is an amazing testament to Western governments' need to bury certain facts of Mr. Putin's presidency.

An extensive electronic search of federal documents finds only two mentions of Ryazan since 1999. In an apparently unique instance, Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, in a 2009 House hearing, deliberately invited Andrei Illarionov, Mr. Putin's former economic adviser, to repeat his public endorsement of the charge. One year earlier, Edward Lucas, former Moscow bureau chief of the Economist, during another House hearing injected the subject of Ryazan unbidden into a discussion of public opinion in Russia.

Look, we're sure nobody in the U.S. government feels especially clean about the lengths to which the West has gone to preserve Mr. Putin as an acceptable partner, least of all President Obama, last seen patting a Putin factotum on the sleeve and asking him to assure his master that more "flexibility" would be forthcoming after Mr. Obama's re-election in 2012. For one thing, Mr. Putin's hosting of this month's games would hardly be conceivable if Western governments hadn't long ago adopted the habit of ignoring the implications of Ryazan.

But is it smart? Mr. Putin rose by pushing an older mentor into invisible retirement; so did Saddam Hussein. Mr. Putin started a war in Chechnya. Saddam started a war with Iran. Each regime became known for the violence that befell its critics and opponents. Saddam became such a power unto himself, surrounded by toadies, that his final miscalculation was all but inevitable—albeit much fostered by Russian (and French) advice that America's invasion threat was a bluff.

Who knows in what context it might occur (Ukraine comes to mind), but Mr. Putin would by now have every excuse for a similar miscalculation that could cost Russia and the world dearly.