Russian Roulette

Alexander Litvinenko said a lot of outrageous things when he was alive. He claimed that Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a Russian agent. He alleged that he had a tape of Russian President Vladimir Putin having sex with another man. And he declared, just before dying, that his enemies in the FSB, Russia's secret service, had poisoned him in order to silence him. Some of Litvinenko's allegations were hard to believe. But as British and FBI investigators followed a radioactive trail left by the deadly isotope, polonium 210, that killed the Russian exile on Nov. 23--finding traces of it on planes from Moscow to London--they began to believe he might have been on to something. Litvinenko, hairless and ghostly pale, had devoted his last minutes of consciousness to fingering the FSB and Putin himself. "You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed," the former FSB lieutenant colonel turned dissident said on his deathbed. "The howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

The Kremlin called Litvinenko's allegation "nothing but nonsense." Putin himself dismissively suggested that Litvinenko might have been "sacrificed" by his dissident allies as a ploy to cast blame on Moscow. British investigators last week cautioned that they had turned up nothing that led to any particular suspect. Some suggested that Litvinenko's poisoning was done too sloppily for the culprit to have been the FSB, the successor to the fabled KGB. Professional hits are supposed to be neat, quiet affairs. But so many traces of polonium 210 were found in London restaurants, hotels and posh neighborhoods like Mayfair that British tabloids began to run radiation scare! headlines. Authorities said some 33,000 British Airways passengers may have been exposed, though the health risks were considered minor.

Still, the fears in London reflected the unease in many Western capitals about the kind of place Russia has become. Grown richer on gas and oil profits, an increasingly haughty Russia has begun to behave like an international bully, U.S. and European officials complain. After a decade in which it meekly accepted its status as a second-rate power, Russia has cut off fuel supplies to the Europeans, strong-armed former Soviet satellites like Ukraine and Georgia, obstructed Washington over sanctions against Iran and harassed U.S. companies in Russia.

Equally worrisome, Russia has become a nation where corruption is systemic, where the only order and security come from bribes and protection rackets and contract killings are as common as buyouts on Wall Street. Politics and profits are so intertwined that top Kremlin officials control some of the country's biggest companies. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev is also chairman of Gazprom, the $220 billion gas monopoly. Presidential administration deputy chief Igor Sechin is head of the giant state oil company, Rosneft, and Putin aide Viktor Ivanov chairs national air-carrier Aeroflot, as well as the main air-defense contractor, Almaz-Antei. "We used to have a private oligarchy--now we have an oligarchy drawn from the secret police," says former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, referring to the KGB background of many of Putin's advisers. Indeed, some U.S. and European officials suggest that Putin's Russia now has the characteristics of a fascist state. "There's no longer a sense that Russia is just on the other side of the divide but still within the family," says Stephen Sestanovich, a former top Russia adviser in Democratic and Republican administrations. "The Russians are no longer the errant cousins. They're looking like a different gang altogether."

One thing is certain: enemies of the Kremlin and its many business interests have been turning up suspiciously dead lately. A month before Litvinenko's murder, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of Putin's war in Chechnya, was shot to death at her Moscow apartment. The Litvinenko poisoning was the most brazen attack yet, occurring in the heart of London in early November. Despite the failure to find a culprit, intelligence assessments sent to the White House by last weekend indicated that most theories pointed back to Russia.

Most experts agreed that the killer's use of polonium 210 was the hardest evidence tying the assassination to elements inside the Russian government. In the quantity that killed Litvinenko, the obscure isotope could be obtained only from a nuclear reactor or a nuclear-powered sub. "It is not at all easy to get hold of," says Boris Zhukov, head of the radioisotope laboratory of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Nuclear Research Institute. "And absolutely impossible outside state control, at least in Russia." Some U.S. and British intel sources, however, suggest the polonium 210 that killed Litvinenko could have come from some place besides Russia.

According to a classified U.S. intelligence bulletin on the case that was described to NEWSWEEK, one theory among many is that the culprits could be rogue elements of the FSB. A possible suspect is a quasi-mythical group called Dignity and Honor, an alleged organization of ex-spies who target Kremlin critics on their own initiative. "We are talking about death squads here, like the ones they had in Latin America, of former KGB special units who are experienced in war, intelligence and murder," says Aleksei Venediktov, director of Ekho Moskvy, a prominent radio station, and one of Moscow's best-connected commentators. "These people lost everything in '90s. They felt betrayed first by [Boris] Yeltsin and then by Putin. Beginning in about 1998, they formed private groups, radical and militarized. Their aim is to kill enemies of the motherland." (One case is under investigation, though no murders have yet been conclusively tied to such groups.)

But if Putin was blameless in the Litvinenko killing, he didn't exactly jump into the investigation, either. "Why isn't Putin saying, 'This is awful and we will help you track the responsibility wherever it goes'?" asks Sestanovich. "Their own words and actions here convict them, if not of direct responsibility then at least of an approach and attitude toward a crime like this that is way out of the mainstream." Asked about the possibility of rogue FSB killers, one senior U.S. official who deals with Russia cautioned against making the same mistake President Truman once did when he remarked that "poor Stalin" was a "prisoner of the Politburo." Putin, a former KGB colonel, "is a very smart man; he keeps his eye on detail," said the official, who would speak about the case only anonymously.

Even if the Russian president weren't directly involved in Litvinenko's killing or other assassinations, it is clear that extremist elements in his security apparatus think they can act with impunity. Last June, after the murder of Russian diplomats in Iraq, Russia's rubber-stamp Parliament authorized assassination of "terrorists" anywhere in the world--not that the lack of such a law stopped the KGB (or indeed FSB) in the past. Vladimir Ryzhkov, a deputy in Russia's Duma, believes that the motive in murders like Litvinenko's is "not to just get rid of individuals, but to lead a psychological campaign to threaten the mass of people back home. The message is, 'You are next'." But most contract murders in Russia tend to be disputes over money, not politics, investigators say.

U.S. officials caution that not all is going bad with Russia. Moscow is cooperating on nuclear nonproliferation and recently agreed to terms for entry into the World Trade Organization. President George W. Bush still has "a very good personal relationship" with Putin, says a senior Bush administration official who would talk only on condition of anonymity. "They can discuss anything."

Even so, U.S. officials fear that corporate interests have become so dominant in Russia that the West can no longer depend on statesmanlike behavior out of Moscow. Many senior Kremlin figures, for example, have strong financial interests in continuing to trade nukes and conventional weapons with Iran. "The only institution that works in Russia anymore is the Kremlin," says the U.S. official who deals with Moscow. Whether the Kremlin is also working to silence its critics may be a secret that dies with people like Alexander Litvinenko.