Heavy-handed Putin

President Vladimir Putin increasingly has been imitating his Soviet predecessors of a bygone communist era. Dissidents, spies, "undesirables", and people just in the wrong place at the wrong time frequently "disappeared" in the former Soviet Union. A late night knock on the door, a worker who never came home, and people who just vanished were common occurrences because of the practices of the NKVD, KGB, and other Soviet security agencies to instill fear and maintain obedience to the Soviet system.

While there have been fewer late night knocks on the door since the collapse of the Soviet Union, murder and intimidation remain tactics of security services in the Russian Federation. Particularly since Putin has reigned, power has been consolidated in the presidency and in Moscow. Russian media outlets have been gobbled up by the state, journalists have been intimidated, attacked, and even murdered; private businessmen have been jailed on fraudulent charges to ensure that power remains firmly entrenched in the Presidency.

Most recently, Ivan Safronov, "fell" from his 5th floor apartment to his death. Safronov had been
investigating "claims of planned Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran" just before he died. Kommersant, the newspaper he worked for, stated that he showed no signs of being suicidal. Safranov was investigating reports that Russia planned to sell sophisticated fighter planes to Syria and missiles to Iran through Belarus.

"Too many critical journalists have died in the line of duty in Russia,"
said Joel Simon, the director of New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.  Some have also said that being a journalist in Russia is "as dangerous as war". The International News Safety Institute (INSI) has concluded that Russia is the second most dangerous place for journalists in the world next to Iraq. In the last 10 years, 88 journalists have been killed in Russia.

Before the Safronov "fall", Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered outside her Moscow apartment. Politkovskaya was investigating human rights violations in Chechnya. She was also a strident critic of Vladimir Putin.
"The gun found near her apartment block in central Moscow was a 9mm Makarov, known as the weapon of choice for Russian hit men. Police said they were searching for a man in his twenties dressed in a black cap, seen just before neighbours discovered her body in the lift."(source) 
Michelle Malkin lists other journalists killed in Russia since 1994:
July 9, 2004: Paul Klebnikov, the U.S.-born editor of the Russian edition of Forbes who had been investigating the murky business world in Russia, is gunned down as he leaves his Moscow office. Two ethnic Chechens accused of carrying out the murder were acquitted earlier this year.

April 29, 2002: Valery Ivanov, editor of the newspaper Tolyatinskoye Oborzreniye in the southern Russian city of Togliatti, is shot dead outside his home. The newspaper was well-known for its reports on local organized crime, drug trafficking and official corruption.

June 7, 1998: Larisa Yudina, editor of the opposition newspaper Sovetskaya Kalmykia in the southern Russian region of Kalmykia, is stabbed to death and her body dumped in a pond on the outskirts of the regional capital, Elista. Two men, both former government aides, were caught and convicted of murder.

March 1, 1995: Vladislav Listyev, executive director of the newly formed public television station ORT, is shot dead as he enters his apartment block. Listyev was one of Russia's best-known TV journalists. Some observers suspect his murder was connected to a controversy over whether to permit advertising on the new network.

Oct. 17, 1994: Dmitry Kholodov, an investigative reporter for the Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, is killed in a bomb blast at the newspaper's office. Kholodov, who had been investigating mafia connections with the military, was killed when he opened a briefcase he believed contained secret documents.
And of course, there is the famous case of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who later fled to Britain after a falling out with Vladimir Putin. Intelligence analyst Glenmore Trenear Harvey stated Litvinenko,
"headed up one of the internal investigations branches that was looking into the corruption and coercion that was going on within the Russian intelligence service so he made a lot of enemies way back then."
It is believed that Litvinenko was close to Anna Politkovskaya and was also investigating her murder. Litvinenko later wrote a book in which he accused Federal Security Service (FSB), formerly the KGB, agents in Russia coordinated the 1999 apartment block bombings in the country that killed more than 300 people and helped justify Putin's decision to reignite the war in Chechnya against Islamic fighters in the breakaway province.

In 1998, Litvinenko exposed a plot to assassinate tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky is now in exile in the United Kingdom, just as did Litvinenko when he was murdered. Litvinenko sought asylum in the UK in 2000 after facing ongoing persecution and threats in Russia.

Litvinenko also alleged that Al Qaida #2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was trained by the FSB in Dagestan years before the 9/11 attacks. Litvinenko was later murdered using polonium 210, a radioactive substance that caused acute radiation syndrome. Litvinenko had met with two former FSB (or KGB) agents on November 1, 2006, and it was believed he was poisoned that same day. He died on November 23, 2006.

The fact that polonium 210 was used is clear evidence of a state actor. The radioactive material can only be obtained in microscopic amounts from nuclear reactors. Russia produces most of the world's polonium in its Chernobyl model reactors.

State Duma member, Sergei Abeltsev's
stated  the day after Litvinenko's death:

"The deserved punishment reached the traitor. I am sure his terrible death will be a warning to all the traitors that in Russia the treason is not to be forgiven. I would recommend to citizen Berezovsky to avoid any food at the commemoration for his accomplice Litvinenko."

Stalin would truly be proud. The evidence suggests that Mr. Putin and his FSB/KGB cronies are systematically killing dissent and any investigation into the Russian government's activities. It is also very apparent that Russia is aiding and abetting the enemies of the United States in the Middle East and throughout the world by supplying them with sophisticated weapons and technology.

Russia is now going so far as to openly be assisting Iran in its nuclear program. In February of 2005, Russia and Iran agreed to Russia supplying fuel for Iran's nuclear reactor in Bushehr. The agreement called for Iran returning the spent rods from the reactor to Russia so that they would not be used for nuclear weapons. However, are we willing to believe both Russia and Iran are trustworthy non-proliferators?

President Bush clearly miscalculated on President Putin when he
"I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country," during their 2001 meeting.
The question for the remainder of the Bush presidency will be how to prevent Russia from thwarting America's national security interests without returning to the antagonism and hostility of the Cold War.

Both the US and Russia share an interest in combating Islamic extremists. Russia has pursued closer relations with Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and other countries hostile to the United States. Russia also feels threatened by NATO's expansion into former Soviet Bloc countries and the American presence in central Asian countries like Uzbekistan which used to be part of the USSR. The two countries also have a mutual interest in energy; the US needs oil and would prefer to buy it from non-Middle East sources and Russia wants to become an energy power in the world.

While the two countries have mutual interests on which they could work together to further their security and economic interests, Vladimir Putin's violent reaction to domestic dissent and criticism threatens the fragile state of Russian democracy and its ability to act as an honest, transparent partner. America's miscalculation of Putin and of Russia's commitment to peace and security in the Middle East has also threatened the long term relationship between the two former (and possibly future) enemies.

The challenges that lie ahead will likely fall to both Bush and Putin's successors. Renewing the START agreement and building economic ties between America and Russia on energy could go a long way to building trust. Russia also should be reassured by the State Department and Pentagon that missile defense is directed at countries like Iran and North Korea and not at Russia.

The US should not hesitate to criticize Russian heavy handedness, especially when Russia attempts to influence democratic elections in Ukraine.  Putin has certainly not held back on his criticism of the United States.  In February of this year, Putin delivered a speech in Munich, Germany in which he
stated the world was,
"witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations".
Putin also said,
"One state, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way," speaking through a translator. "This is very dangerous. Nobody feels secure anymore because nobody can hide behind international law. This is nourishing an arms race with the desire of countries to get nuclear weapons." 
A thinly veiled defense of Iran's nuclear pursuit, or perhaps, a warning?

President Putin seemed to be an improvement when he came to power to replace the seldom sober Boris Yeltsin, but he has demonstrated frightening similarities to his Soviet predecessors who used violence, intimidation, and fear to maintain their grip on power.  Nevertheless, the fact that a number of significant mutual interests exist between the United States (and the West more broadly) and Russia provides hope for a safer world in terms of terrorism and nuclear proliferation as well as a more productive future in trade and investment.

Jonathan D. Strong is proprietor of The Strong Conservative.
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