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Don’t play dead for Putin

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. mboot@latimescolumnists.com

THERE ARE A lot of ways to make a man’s death look like an accident, suicide or a street crime. That wasn’t the intent of whoever murdered former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. By using such an exotic murder weapon -- a radioactive isotope known as polonium-210 -- his killers sent a message: Don’t mess with the powers that be in Russia.

The identity of his murderers is likely to remain unknown, but in all probability Litvinenko was poisoned because of his campaign against Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and the KGB’s successor, the FSB. He is only the latest to pay with his life for offending Russia’s ruling clique. The list of prominent people murdered in the last few years includes crusading journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya (whose death Litvinenko was investigating), politicians, executives and government officials. Others, such as Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, have narrowly survived assassination attempts or have been exiled or silenced with threats of violence or legal charges.

Alleged tax evasion has been a favorite tool of intimidation. Wielding such dubious accusations, the Kremlin was able to consign Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to a Siberian prison camp and to expropriate his giant oil company, Yukos. Whatever the state of his taxes, Khodorkovsky’s real sin was to bankroll opposition to Putin.

Having taken power in a nascent democracy six years ago, Putin has been reestablishing authoritarian control. Governors are no longer elected but appointed by the Kremlin. Laws have been changed to make it harder for opposition parties to compete. Independent media outlets and major corporations have been gobbled up by state-controlled companies.

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Repression at home has been matched by rogue behavior abroad. Russia has used economic leverage in an attempt to stifle democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, with the goal of keeping those neighboring countries under its thumb. In Chechnya, Moscow has imposed a brutal puppet regime. Russia exports arms to China, Venezuela, Syria and other countries at odds with the U.S. Most alarming have been Russia’s sales to Iran of a nuclear reactor and surface-to-air missiles to defend it, even as Moscow blocks serious U.N. sanctions against Tehran.

Russia is not yet an outright enemy of the United States, but it’s certainly no friend. Putin is catering to Russian nostalgia for past greatness and to enduring resentment of the West in order to justify his consolidation of power. Washington’s ability to frustrate his designs is limited because the Kremlin is awash in petrorubles. But there are still steps we can take to make Czar Vladimir I pay a price for his growing truculence.

For a start, the United States and its allies can move more actively to incorporate states such as Ukraine and Georgia into the Western ambit through bilateral alliances and trade deals as well as by extending NATO and European Union membership. We can increase funding for civil society groups in Russia. The Kremlin has been harassing foreign nongovernmental organizations because it fears a “people power” revolution. The best Western response is to funnel more money to such groups as well as to independent media outlets.

Western governments can also signal to Western companies and financial markets that investing in Russia is not a good idea. Russia’s oil and gas industry, its major exporter, remains dependent on expertise and capital from abroad; a slowdown of such investment would be costly for Moscow. Russia is financially dependent on the West in another sense: Putin’s cronies (and probably Putin himself) are thought to stash their ill-gotten gains in havens such as Switzerland. If the U.S. Treasury Department and foreign financial watchdogs were to launch investigations and start tossing around phrases such as “money laundering” and “asset freezes,” Kremlin insiders would feel the heat.

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This is something that could be done behind the scenes. At the same time, public pressure could be applied to deny Putin the international legitimacy he so obviously craves. President Bush could stop holding summit conferences with him and stop including him in high-profile meetings such as the G-7.

Above all, what’s needed is a change of mind-set in Washington. We need to stop thinking of how to cozy up to Putin and start thinking of how to frustrate his illiberal imperial designs.


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