Alexander Litvinenko: a murder mystery, not a Cold War thriller

Why are some in the West using the death of a former spy to redraw the East-West divide?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The only thing we know for certain about the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London is that it was a tragedy for his family and friends. We still do not know who poisoned him or why. One British police officer investigating his death says ‘a bewildering number of theories and names [have been] put to us, and we must establish some firm evidence’ (1).

Yet despite the uncertainty, despite the lack of ‘firm evidence’, some Western officials and commentators have rushed to indict Putin’s Russia. Russia has been found guilty not only of killing Litvinenko, but also of posing a threat to global stability, showing no respect for human rights, and failing its ‘experiment in democracy’. Some are cynically using Litvinenko’s death as an opportunity to breathe life back into the old Cold War divide and re-villainise Russia all over again.

Of course Russian politics and business are murky, sometimes violent worlds. Litvinenko seems to have been immersed in these worlds. He was a former high-ranking official in the KGB, known for imprisoning and torturing its opponents. And according to the latest theories put forward this morning, he may have been targeted because he had passed evidence to the billionaire businessmen behind the Yukos oil company, which has been broken up and sold off by Putin’s government (2). There could be a long line-up of suspects for his murder.

If Litvinenko’s death is a reminder of the tactics used by some Russian bigwigs ‘over there’, then the response to his death reveals a powerful sense of malaise ‘over here’. Even before it was known what poison had been used on Litvinenko, much less who had administered it, newspapers were full of handwringing reports about the ‘Russian threat’, the new trade in nuclear materials, the dangers posed by porous borders and the problem with unrestricted immigration. You could be forgiven for thinking that the entire West was in danger of being killed off, rather than one Russian dissident.

Many speedily reverted to using old Cold War language. In the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman said, ‘It is unfortunate that the murder coincided with the release of a new Bond film in Britain. The result has been that the British media has been tempted to treat the assassination of a British citizen as just an extension of the Bond series’ (3). On this front, the Sun’s headline following revelations that Litvinenko was probably poisoned while eating in a sushi bar ranks as one of the more tasteless: ‘From Russia with lunch.’ (4)

Elsewhere, writers went into serious Cold War mode almost as soon as they heard that a Russian dissident had died. Writing in The Times, Edward Lucas did not wait around for any ‘firm evidence’ before declaring that the Evil Empire was with us once more. ‘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.’ (5)

Citing Winston Churchill’s famous speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946 – seen as the starting point of the first Cold War – FT columnist John Thornhill called on Europe to unite against Russia following Litvinenko’s death: ‘Europe must remain united in the face of any intimidation and not allow the Kremlin to play one country off against another.’ Thornhill didn’t go so far as to announce the start of a new Cold War, though he did predict ‘an increasingly hot peace’ (6).

Meanwhile, political leaders in Europe and America upped the ante against Putin. British Cabinet minister Peter Hain said things are getting ‘frosty’ (another word for ‘cold’) between Britain and Russia, which he accused of launching ‘huge attacks on individual liberty and democracy’ (7).

Some seemed positively to welcome the alleged return of the Cold War. At a time when politics lacks oomph or urgency, they pulled the old Cold War certainties around themselves like a warm and familiar security blanket. Litvinenko’s death provided a rare opportunity for some black-and-white moral posturing, a chance to take a global and seemingly historic stand against a wicked empire in our midst.

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. So for Thornhill, the new Cold War offers an opportunity for Europe to unite, and presumably to rise above its various disagreements over the EU Constitution and the future of Eastern Europe. For Lucas, the problem is that ‘Russia is rich and strong, while the West, and particularly the alliance between Europe and America, is demoralised and discredited’ (8). The declaration of a new Cold War – on the back of a mysterious murder in London – is a feeble attempt to galvanise a ‘demoralised’ West by getting it to stand up to a fairly imaginary terrible threat from the East.

This is history repeated as farce. Over the past 60 years and more, you could tell a lot about the West from how it related to Russia. During the Cold War years from 1945 to 1990, governments in the West advertised themselves against the Soviet Union. They may not have been able to articulate what was good or positive about Western capitalism, but they could at least say: ‘At least we aren’t like them. At least we don’t have to queue for bread.’ After the Cold War, in the nervous Nineties, Russia came to be seen as an unstable beast potentially leaking toxins and weapons that might harm the West. There were stories about ‘suitcase nukes’ being sold by former Soviet scientists to Islamists in all those various countries ending in the word ‘stan’.

During the Cold War, Russia was viewed as a monolithic, centralised war machine whose nukes were dangerously aimed at the West; after the Cold War it came to be seen as an out-of-control state whose nukes might fall into dodgy hands. These representations of Russia revealed as much about the West’s own fears and doubts as they did about the reality of life inside Russia. And so it is today. After Litvinenko’s death, everything from uncontrolled immigration to the rise of chemical terrorism has been projected on to the debate about Russia. The Sun even cited Litvinenko’s death as a reason for closing the EU door to Bulgaria and Romania, with a cartoon showing a man in shades with a bushy moustache carrying a suitcase nuke, an axe and other weapons through customs into the UK (9). Well, they’re all the same, those Easterners, aren’t they?

It remains to be seen who killed Alexander Litvinenko. But one thing seems to have been proven beyond reasonable doubt: some in the West seem so bereft of ideas that they are willing to go back to the Cold War rather than face up to today’s political realities.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Poisoned spy visited Israel with oil dossier, The Times (London), 27 November 2006

(2) Poisoned spy visited Israel with oil dossier, The Times (London), 27 November 2006

(3) The new Cold War debate, Financial Times, 27 November 2006

(4) From Russia with lunch, Sun, 21 November 2006

(5) The one way to fight Putin’s menace, The Times (London), 25 November 2006

(6) Do not let ghosts of the cold war impede history’s lessons, Financial Times, 25 November 2006

(7) Reid to brief Commons on Litvinenko, Guardian, 27 November 2006

(8) The one way to fight Putin’s menace, The Times (London), 25 November 2006

(9) ‘Just five weeks till we open door to The Mob’, Sun, 27 November 2006

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