With the death of former East German espionage chief Markus Wolf and the nomination of ex-Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates to be the next Secretary of Defense, the news has been full of stories about the tense and secretive atmosphere of the Cold War. Several of those articles claimed that this golden era of espionage was over, and that good relations between the United States and Russia made a resumption of such closet hostilities unlikely. But despite this suggestions that the only place one would find cloak and dagger situations would be in movies like Casino Royale and The Good Shepherd, this BBC article about the poisoning of a critic of Russian President Vladmir Putin suggests a different story.
If Alexander Litvinenko were just a political refugee who also happened to be a former KGB colonel, one could claim that this was simply the settling of old scores - yet another last flare of the Cold War. But such a hypothesis seems naïve when one learns that Litvinenko, the author of of a book that suggests that Russian security services were responsible for a series of apartment bombings in Russia that were blamed on Chechen terrorists and helped justify the war against Chechnya in 1999, was investigating the assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, herself an outspoken critic of the Kremlin's actions in Chechnya.
If there is one thing that has legitimized the autocratic rule of President Putin, it is Chechnya. By portraying the separatist movement as the product of international Islamic terrorism, Putin's administration was not only able to justify himself to the Russian people, but to the world, especially after September 11. One might say that there is only one mortal sin in today's Russia - criticizing the actions of the rich and powerful. Whether the accussed are the government or just super-rich oligarchs, truth-seekers who deal with the inner workings of the country must fear for their lives. While most Western news media would have us believe that the days of Georgi Markov are behind us, current events tell a different story.
Personally, I would assume that it is doubtful that the material that Politkovskaya and Litvinenko had acquired was important enough to necessitate them being killed. Yet, someone with enough money to pay off assassins thought their data was important enough that they had to be stopped. Was it Vladimir Putin? Almost certainly not. But by his lack of support for investigations into the death of journalists, he is sending a clear message to those who want to get rid of those who support agendas not in line with Russia's most powerful interests.