The Russia of Vladimir Putin sometimes resembles the old Soviet Union more than it resembles a democracy someone in the West would recognize, but the radioactive drama playing out in London might not be a case for James Bond after all.
Or it might be. Russia was a dark and sinister place long before Lenin arrived in Moscow, where assassination was an art and mercy was administered with a dirk or strained through a poisoned pilsner. Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev merely refined the czar's virtuosity.
Scotland Yard formally asked for Russian help yesterday to find the assassin of Alexander Litvinenko, the one-time Russian spy who came in from the cold only to die in a warm British bed. Two detectives were dispatched to Moscow, but they can't be sure how much help they'll get. Mr. Putin originally scoffed that he hadn't seen proof that Mr. Litvinenko, who passed away in considerable pain from polonium 210 poisoning, had even suffered a "violent death." His foreign minister complains that "continued suggestions" that the Kremlin was involved in the Litvinenko death "could damage relations" between Russia and Britain.
Well, yes, it probably could. Bonnie and Clyde similarly complained that "continued suggestions" that they were robbing banks could damage their relations with the FBI and police chiefs in small towns across the Midwest and South. Moscow, unlike Melvin Purvis, does not appear eager to get to the bottom of the crime.
Not all speculation in London fingers Mr. Putin and his men. The London Independent, which relentlessly blames George W. Bush for the world's evils and ills, suggests that Mr. Litvinenko could have administered the poison and doomed himself to a particularly painful death just to make Mr. Putin look bad. But even moderate London sources suggest that the rush to judgment is at least premature and maybe wrong-headed. John Reid, the British home secretary, privately warned the Blair Cabinet "not to make assumptions," at least until more facts are known.
Others in London, no particular friends of Mr. Putin, argue that the poisoning is certainly worthy of a murky Russian novel, but does not bear the marks of an efficient KGB hit, which usually leaves no trace of authorship. Whoever administered the fatal potion gave Mr. Litvinenko a hundred times the dose needed to kill, and even if the killer wanted to send a message to other restless Russian exiles in "Londongrad," he would not, if in the employ of a government killing agency, have made it so tempting to tie the killing to official sources.
Mr. Putin, notes Tim Hames, a columnist for the London Times, "has been portrayed as if another Ernst Blofeld, Ian Fleming's sinister founder of Spectre [the nemesis of James Bond], stroking his white cat while calmly deciding whether or not to terminate his enemies. ... The more that we learn about Mr. Litvinenko and his circle, the more confusing matters become and the longer and more diverse grows the list of people who may have wanted him murdered. He was involved with past members of the KGB ... whom he had accused of killing innocent Russians in 1999 to revive the conflict with Chechnya, current [espionage] operatives, people with connections to organized crime, various anti-Putin activists and a series of Russians living in Britain either by choice or in involuntary exile." The murkiness grew darker yesterday when Mr. Litvinenko's father revealed that the one-time spy, once known to cultivate radical Islamists in Chechnya, had converted to Islam on his deathbed and wanted a Muslim funeral. Could his death have been just another revenge killing in the name of Allah?
London bubbles, squeaks and frequently crackles with intrigue. "Londongrad" has become a congested intersection of Russian interests, for billionaires preparing a place to run to, oligarchs who are variously friend and foe of the reigning powers in Moscow, spies and counterspies, all contending for advantage. Britain can tolerate the ordinarily intolerable because the Russians are spying on each other, not on sensitive British targets. Organizing murder is what mafia dons do, and as long as the killing of thugs goes on out of sight, no one is frightened.
But fighting with radioactive isotopes is another matter entirely, leaving lethal traces to threaten innocents in hotels, restaurants, airplanes and taxicabs. Soon nobody will be safe, and that scares everybody.