Can Russia be trusted is the question of the day following the murder of former Russian KGB spy Alexander V. Litvinenko. Litvinenko was poisoned in London with Polonium 210. Only professionals use Polonium 210. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes or Hans Blix to conclude this plan was hatched by the Kremlin and President Putin's fingerprints seem to be all over the evidence. The Kremlin is issuing a plausible denial with loud protests about how the Russians are being framed. Framed? Eliminating one's enemies is century-old business as usual for the Russians.
The first time I was in Russia was Thanksgiving of 1978. I went to Russia to visit an American friend writing her doctoral dissertation. It was an unforgettable trip. No matter where I went, or who I made contact with, our ''tour guide'' always knew what I was up to. I quickly learned why most of my friend's communication with the other American students was via a child's ''magic slate.'' It was quickly erasable and left no conversations to be recorded.
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I heard many Russian jokes during that trip but one that stayed with me dealt with the ''progress'' of the then Soviet Union. The joke runs something like this: the last czar dies and goes directly to hell. He is joined several years later by Lenin. He welcomes Lenin and asks how things are in Russia. ''How is the secret police? Are you controlling the peasants? Are you running things from the top and making sure to curb any democracy? Are you sure you have control of the press?'' Lenin answers yes to all the questions.''Good, good'' says the czar. ''Russia is running the same as I left it.'' Stalin dies, goes to hell and the czar asks the same questions and gets the same answers. ''Good, good'' says the czar. ''Russia is the same as I left it.'' Finally, Khrushchev dies and meets the rest of his predecessors in hell. The czar asks the same questions and gets the same answers and with the czar nodding with approval, Khrushchev then brags proudly, ''We also upped the alcohol content in Vodka by 1 percent!'' The czar pauses thoughtfully and says, ''For 1 percent you had a Revolution?''
Ironically, change in Russia under the Communists was thought to be for about 1 percent of the general Russian population. The majority had the same lack of freedom and secret police just with slogans and different actors. With Putin and elections, many thought it was going to be different this time. A real democracy was to have taken hold. The trouble is, the leadership in real democracies don't kill members of the press on the doorsteps of their apartment buildings (Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya), and they don't poison people with Dioxin, (like the Russians most likely poisoned Ukrainian president, Viktor A. Yushchenko). Yushchenko wanted Ukraine to move politically and economically toward Europe and Mr. Putin was very unhappy about his plans.
So, what do we do now? President Bush has been sucking up to Putin since their first meeting in 2001. Remember that famous first meeting Bush described, ''I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He's a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that's the beginning of a very constructive relationship.''
My Fox News Channel sparring partner Jim Pinkerton says this latest assassination will mean a return to the Cold War. Cold War? We are in such a hot embrace with Russia that it is impossible to make it cold. We need and want their oil and gas. We have developed business relationships as well as joint ''Partnership for Peace'' military exercises (aka NATO). We have engaged Russia in our quest to control North Korea's nuclear ambitions. There is no turning back. We are business partners with the Russians. Our multi-national corporations would never stand for it.
The one area we could influence the Russians in is in the court of world opinion. Unfortunately, due to Guantanamo and our handling of Iraq we are not on the moral high ground. Last summer President Putin got a lot of laughs in a joint press conference with President Bush when he responded to Bush's recap of their private meeting.
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Bush: I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world, like Iraq, where there's a free press and free religion. And I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope that Russia will do
the same thing. I fully understand, however, that there will be a Russian-style democracy.
Putin: We certainly would not want to have same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, quite honestly.
The United States is very short of options when it comes to ''diplomacy'' with the Russians.
This may be the time for Secretary of State Rice to use her Russian expertise. She was the Russian expert under President George H.W. Bush but has put Russia on the back burner while she focused on Iraq. The problem is that Iraq had no ''weapons of mass destruction,'' but Russia does. Not only does it have an estimated 5,830 nuclear weapons, but it reportedly has labs to make poisons, (as we saw this week), and germ warfare. It may be, however, that the secretary of state just has a big soft spot in her heart for the Russians. As she was quoted to have said in a meeting on Iraq in June of 2003, when discussing what to do with the coalition of the ''unwilling,'' she said, ''Punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia.''
President Bush may have gotten a sense of Putin's soul but he missed the nukes, the germs and the poisons. The canary died in the mine and it is time to pay attention to what just happened. Should we be putting our energy fighting a rag tag insurgency in Iraq or should we be focusing on the guys who really have the capacity to end our life as we know it?