By Neil Clark (THE GUARDIAN, 04/12/06):
Three weeks on, we are still no closer to knowing who was responsible for the death of the former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko. The use of polonium 210 as a murder weapon could point in entirely opposite directions. It might suggest that the killing was carried out on behalf of the Russian security service as a public warning to others who might think of betraying it. But it could also be read as an attempt by President Putin's rich and powerful enemies to discredit the Russian government internationally. Whatever the truth, it has been seized upon across Europe and the US to fuel a growing anti-Russian campaign.
There are certainly grounds for criticising the Russian government from a progressive perspective. Putin has introduced a flat-rate income tax, which greatly benefits the wealthy, and plans the partial marketisation of Russia's education and health systems. He has pursued a bloody campaign of repression in Chechnya. And while some of Russia's oligarchs have been bought to justice, others remain free to flaunt their dubiously acquired wealth, in a country where the gap between rich and poor has become chasmic.
Even so, those on the centre-left who have joined the current wave of Putin-bashing ought to consider whose cause they are serving. Long before the deaths of Litvinenko and the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Russophobes in the US and their allies in Britain were doing all they could to discredit Putin's administration. These rightwing hawks are gunning for Putin not because of concern for human rights but because an independent Russia stands in the way of their plans for global hegemony. The neoconservative grand strategy was recorded in the leaked Wolfowitz memorandum, a secret 1990s Pentagon document that targeted Russia as the biggest future threat to US geostrategic ambitions and projected a US-Russian confrontation over Nato expansion.
Even though Putin has acquiesced in the expansion of American influence in former Soviet republics, the limited steps the Russian president has taken to defend his country's interests have proved too much for Washington's empire builders. In 2003, Bruce P Jackson, the director of the Project for a New American Century, wrote that Putin's partial renationalisation of energy companies threatened the west's "democratic objectives" - and claimed Putin had established a "de facto cold war administration". Jackson's prognosis was simple: a new "soft war" against the Kremlin, a call to arms that has been enthusiastically followed in both the US and Britain.
Every measure Putin has taken has been portrayed by the Russophobes as the work of a sinister totalitarian. Gazprom's decision to start charging Ukraine the going rate for its gas last winter was presented as a threat to the future of western Europe. And while western interference in elections in Ukraine, Georgia and other ex-Soviet republics has been justified on grounds of spreading democracy, any Russian involvement in the affairs of its neighbours has been spun as an attempt to recreate the "evil empire". As part of their strategy, Washington's hawks have been busy promoting Chechen separatism in furtherance of their anti-Putin campaign, as well as championing some of Russia's most notorious oligarchs.
In the absence of genuine evidence of Russian state involvement in the killings of Litvinenko and Politkovskaya, we should be wary about jumping on a bandwagon orchestrated by the people who bought death and destruction to the streets of Baghdad, and whose aim is to neuter any counterweight to the most powerful empire ever seen.