Monday, November 27, 2006

A new Cold War?

Economist correspondent on Poland and eastern Europe, Edward Lucas, pops up in the Times (London) where his opening three sentences are:

‘How was Litvinenko murdered? We don’t know yet; we may never find out, but what is clear is his death marks the start of a new Cold War. The question is: how to win it?’

But surely, if we ‘don’t know yet’ what happened, and ‘may never find out’, then how on earth can we deduce that the murder ‘marks the start of a new Cold War’? Some confusion here, me thinks.

What we do know is that much of the western media has responded to the radioactive murder in London as Edward has done. The British government is being careful, but a New Labour minister broke ranks at the weekend and said what they really think by laying into Putin’s (admittedly loathsome) human rights record. This is a battle of good versus evil, we are told, and President Putin is on the side of the baddies and Litvinenko on our side, the side of the goodies. And this all adds up to a ‘new Cold war’.

But let’s be realistic: Litvinenko was, like Putin, a member of the KGB. The KGB was a nasty organization. Litvinenko was no knight in shining amour. He wasn’t even a dirty angel. He did bad things too.

And at a time when Russia is trying to form new agreements with Britain over energy supplies why would Putin start murdering people in the middle of the UK capital?

But more importantly, we should also be realistic in admitting that the relationship between Russia and the rest of the world is most defiantly not a new ‘Cold War’.

In the Times article, Edward reminds us that there are lots of conflicts going on between Russia and countries that were unfortunately imprisoned in the old communist bloc, such as Georgia, Ukraine and Poland. Most of these disputes are over oil and gas supply, which Moscow does have a strong influence over. Putin (who, remember, has an approval rating in Russia of about 80%) can turn off the taps; the Big Bad Bear can force them into new agreements (for a start, it can make Belarus or Ukraine pay the market rate for gas anytime it likes – at the moment they are getting cut price Russian gas because pipelines go through there territory).

But do these trade disputes add up to a new ‘Cold War’? To think that they do confuses what the old Cold War was really like – a struggle over land, territory, influence, and most importantly, ideology.

Russia is not trying to force its Dickensian capitalism on Poland. There are no threats to invade Warsaw. Tanks are not on the borders. Polish school kids are no longer forced to learn Russian.

So why are western (and many Polish) journalists equating two completely different situations?

Brendan O’Neill in Spiked may have a point when he writes:

‘What is really motivating this reversion to Cold War rhetoric is not any clear evidence of Putin’s involvement in Litvinenko’s murder, or the reality of the ‘Russian threat’ (let’s not forget that the real Cold War involved a global stand-off between two nuclear-armed superpowers; the occasional killing of spies was only a small part of that stand-off). Rather, it is a transparent and cynical attempt to give a shot to Western politics itself.’

When the real Cold War did end western politicians were left without an enemy with which do justify their own existence. Politics has become more and more meaningless and the political class more and more isolated from its people. The last 16 years have been a search for ‘meaning’. Who are the new bad guys?

Well, they have found al-Qaeda; and now they have found a new ‘Russian threat’ – even though we have little or no evidence that al-Qaeda is capable of ‘threatening our way of life’, or that Putin is sending guys over to London to slip some polonium in someone’s sushi.

Time to calm down a little.


Anonymous said...

It is time to calm down and keep the rhetoric down. Overstating it as a "new cold war" is political pandering. This incident was an internal squable among former KGB agents and not directed against the interest of any other nation. It most likely was a state sponsored killing because only a few nations have enough polonium on hand in sufficient quantity to cause such deadly results. Putin is doing a little house cleaning.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we don’t have a reason to proclaim the existence of a new Cold War, but we do have a problem with Russia or more precisely the ruling elites.

Putting aside the media frenzy generated by the Litvinenko affair, any examination of Mr. Putin’s deeds and actions produce a damming resume. He seems to address problems and differences from a frame of reference at variance to any acceptable standard of conduct.

What potentially close relationship does the EU expect with a society that rejects at the highest levels the fundamental principles under which the EU exists. Time to accept a problem exists.

Frank Partisan said...

Why would someone kill off an opponent, with a method that is dangerous as well to the perpetuator? Why not just shoot him?

Anonymous said...

Renegade eye said: “Why would someone kill off an opponent, with a method that is dangerous as well to the perpetuator? Why not just shoot him? “

The logical purpose of this assassination was two fold, firstly to silence this person and secondly send a message to those who would be vocal critics. Throughout human history, intentional application of poison has been used as a method of assassination in modern times it’s been a trademark of the KGB and it’s successor the FSB. As recently as 2002 Saudi-born financier of the Chechen resistance, Omar ibn Khattab, died after opening a poisoned letter.

In 1959 the KGB using a method even more potentially dangerous to the assassin than Polonium 210, assassinated the Ukrainian nationalist Stephan Bandera.

A gun can be dangerous to the perpetuator if mishandled, the gun being a mass produced object has a measure of traceability also transport across borders is an issue. However a weapon that can be hidden easily, ingested without notice and offering a time delay before death to allow for the assassin to make a getaway seems a good alternative.

At the end of the day all that can be proved is the victim got sick and died due to ingesting a deadly substance, nothing else.

troutsky said...

The media hype is what fascinates me.The image of the bald, dying spy is the pure Spectacle we all love (as opposed to any real politics) The Cold War never went away, here in Montana we've got all kind s of Trident missles still pointed at the Evil Empire.Notice how we criticize their Capitalism and gloat over China's Capitalism. Putin is a player and a good one, kill a spy here,a journalist there, arrest a mogul here, crack down on dissidents there.Just like us.

beatroot said...

all that can be proved is the victim got sick and died due to ingesting a deadly substance, nothing else.

Indeed. But don't you just the left's tendency for conspiracy theories? Troutsky, my little freshwater fishy revolutionary, you have no evidence that Putin is involved in this at all. Nothing.

Amd the west is no gloating over China's capitalism - it's scared stiff of it. The difference between it and Russia is that Russia has massive amounts of resources that the west badly needs.

michael farris said...

the weirdest conspiracy about this I've come across is pure right wing, the one and only (dzięki bogu) Pam Atlas:

The theory goes (deep breath) the guy was a convert to Islam (I have no idea if this is true or not) and committed suicide a la jihad to discredit Putin's fight against Islamic terrorists...

No I didn't make that up:

you're very welcome

Anonymous said...

I don't think that Lucas ever thought the cold war ended. I was on the radio with him a few weeks ago and I couldn't believe some of his rhetoric. The sad part is that he is not alone. My view is that most Westerners don't know how to deal with Russia and all its complexities except through "us" vs. "them" Cold War thinking. Hopefully, cool and more intelligent heads will prevail.

Anonymous said...

Sean Guillory said: “most Westerners don't know how to deal with Russia and all its complexities”

This is very correct as Russia is not real a European country or at least culturally different to most of Europe old and new. This one event will not start another cold war but it’s an eye opener to the conditions in Russia. In Russian society assassination is a familiar occurrence particularly businessmen, journalists and politicians.

It’s time to take a hard look at the country that wants a partnership with Europe but will not accept any of Europe’s values. The catalogue of areas on the domestic and international scene were the Russians are out of bounds is extensive.

To ignore Russia and pretend it’s a normal country will in the long-term result in a tragic error.

Martin said...


For any Russian state actor to have ordered Litvinenko's assassination makes no sense.

Like Anna Politkovskaya, he was an unimportant and little known figure in Russia. His death would have been of no political value for Putin whatsoever.

It's a sad fact of life that being a journalist in Russia seems to be a risky business - 100 have been killed since 1986. Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya's newspaper, is now part-owned by Gorbachev - I wonder how many died on his watch. It is not a phemonenon which has sprung up under Putin.

In such circumstances, one must ask 'cui bono'?

Litvinenko was an associate of Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky was his landlord. In 1999, an unverified allegation was made that Berezovsky had paid Litvinenko over $1m to hold the 1998 press conference at which Litvinenko anounced that he had been ordered to kill Berezovsky.

Berezovsky was his landlord in London. In January of this year Berezovsky announced to Agence France Presse that he was planning to overthrow the Russian government by force.

In 2003 he boasted of his links to Lord Bell, who 'The Daily Mail' announced last week was handling Litvinenko's PR for free. It was apparently on Bell's advice that the pictures of Berezovsky in hospital were released.

Kommersant had been running the sory since November 13 - yet it didn't break in the UK until the 19th. If he had suffered thallium poisoning, on the 19th he would have been 2-4 weeks after contamination - precisely the point at which the diagnostic guides to thallium poisoning I've read indicate that the patient starts to lose their hair; one of the critical diagnostic tests.

Then it's not that, but radioactive thallium. Then it wasn't that but Polonium 210.

All this stuff about Polonium 210 being rare is guff. One can buy a static eliminator containing Polonium-210 online from GE Osmonics Labstores for the grand price of $71.

According to some sources I've read, Litvinenko's book didn't sell in Russia at all.

He wasn't a major figure.

For example, the accusation of paedophilia that he made against Putin in 2005 hardly seemed to make a ripple.

On April 3 2006 UKIP MEP Gerard Batten made a statement in the European Parliament prompted by a meeting with Litvinenko. L. had claimed that before he 'fled'
Russia he had had a conversation with the then deputy head of the FSB, who had told him that he shouldn't go to Italy; partly because Romano Prodi was the KGB's main man there.

Given the closeness of his association with Berezovsky, it beggars belief to think that he would have contacted Batten, who also claims to know Scaramella, without Berezovsky's knowledge.

The quality of the UK coverage of this case has been pitiful. The story broke on the 19th. On the 17th, Edward Lucas had an anti-Putin commentary in the 'Daily Telegraph'. On the 20th he had an anti-Putin commentary in 'The Daily Mail'.

In particular, the Daily Telegraph's comment and reporting has been disgraceful in insinuating Russian state involvement in the case - when those who might wish to smear Putin, and who might even have proclaimed their desire to overthrow a friendly foreign power's democratically elected government by force, might just have as much cause to create an incident which would make Anglo-Russian relations more difficult.

Anonymous said...

Martin wrote:

'The Daily Telegraph's reporting has been disgraceful'

Disgraceful and deliberate. To me it's another example of how the media is used to fuel or deny war.

There's been an all out Civil War in Iraq for over a year. Too taboo to mention. But cold or warm, it's war on Putin. And I don't believe that is going to calm down. It's Oil War 2.

Anonymous said...

Georgesdelatour said: “I'm convinced it was mainly the West's fault, not Russia's” and “If Russia's overtures had been responded to, Poland might have been free already by the 1950s. “

If there were an award for the most confused drug driven re-write of history you surely would be a contender for the prize.

You said your wife was Polish hasn't forgiven Russia for numerous occupations of her country, if she reads the comment you posted on this blog and doesn’t cut your throat, it’ll be 10 years to your next blow job.

Anonymous said...

Georgesdelatour said:"I urge you to check the facts for yourself."


"Whether Stalin's offer was genuine or simply a tactical manoeuvre to disrupt the ongoing military integration of the West was the subject of a heated debate at the time. No Soviet or East German document released to date offers substantial evidence that Stalin was prepared to abandon the GDR and reunify Germany, although earlier documents indicate Stalin did have an interest in German reunification. Although most historians deny that Stalin was serious about reunification, this question was never definitely answered." - therefore speculation!

Stalin's actions with the notes was cynical propaganda. At no point was he intending to exit Poland by the 1950s. The cornerstone of Soviet policy was the creation of satellite or buffer states between the Soviet Union and the west.

Anonymous said...

Not another one!

From the Telegraph:

“The Russian rumour mill was spinning furiously today after relatives and colleagues of the controversial former prime minister Yegor Gaidar claimed he may have been poisoned during a visit to Ireland last week.”

Anonymous said...

Wanted –Immediate opening

Pro-democracy NGO in Moscow requires a food taster for it’s annual dinner and dance. Previous experience not required, high sensitivity to toxins would be an asset. Current employees of the FSB are not eligible for consideration.

beatroot said...

...but previous employees are! Eh! Eh!

Sean: cooler heads are very unfashionable these days.

Martin: I don’t think Anna Politkovskaya was so unknown in Russia as you think. Write something nasty about the government in connection with Chechnya and they get very jumpy. It’s the same as US journalists criticizing the US government just after (actually a few years after) 0/11. Not good. So she was quite ‘in’famous in Moscow.

the accusation of paedophilia that he made against Putin in 2005 hardly seemed to make a ripple.

This was the type of accusations he was making. They were a little ‘wild’, you could say. That’s why many in the Russian media are saying he was a bit ‘wacko’. Don’t know if he was or wasn’t – but some of the allegations are a bit strange, to say the least.

Some is going on in Russia that is very weird and nasty. All sorts of permutations as to who killed him are possible. The Russian government is very nasty, but is it that stupid?

Martin said...



Which leaves the question 'Cui bono'.

Not Putin.

Crime gangs he tangled with when he was FSB?


'Rogue elements' within the security services?

Perhaps - although they would need to be funded...

People looking to smear Putin?


beatroot said...

How about Polish secret services trying to smear Putin to get their meat ban lifted? Perhaps.

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Agnes said...

"The Russian government is very nasty, but is it that stupid?" - I think you underestimate fear, Beatroot. Also, as for intelligence, when it comes to the secret services...that is overestimated.

Children learnt what oral sex is, ten years ago, re Monica Lewinsky. Now they will learn another word, polonium. This is how the new popular art is born.

beatroot said...

What kind of curriculum includes both oral sex and polonium? General studies? But you are right about the lack of intelligence in the intelligence services. People think they are all like 007. The reality is they are mostly out of control kooks with too much licence to kill. Rogue elements everywhere who know as much about what is going on as you and I do from reading Google News...

Anonymous said...

But let’s be realistic: Litvinenko was, like Putin, a member of the KGB. The KGB was a nasty organization. Litvinenko was no knight in shining amour. He wasn’t even a dirty angel. He did bad things too.
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