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Is Russia poisoning its relations with the West?

London Telegraph | November 21, 2006

Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who defected to the United Kingdom and is now a British citizen, lies in an intensive care bed in a London hospital, his chances of survival described as "50-50".

He is the victim of an attack with a deadly poison that apparently took place in the course of a meeting in a public place. This fact has taken nearly three weeks to establish beyond doubt by toxicology tests. A number of disturbing questions that arise from this crime remain in dispute.

There is, in the minds of his friends and most knowing observers, a link between the catastrophic fate that has left Mr Litvinenko so near to death and his ties to known enemies of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Not only is he an associate of Russian "oligarch" exiles in Britain, and of Chechen activists, but he has recently been involved in investigating the murder of Russian dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

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All of this points to an obvious conclusion: that agents of the Russian presidency were responsible for the attack which was intended either to silence a dangerous critic permanently, or to cause him enough suffering to serve as a warning to others.

The Russian secret service, in its previous incarnation as the KGB, was known to favour poisoning as a means of eliminating dangerous antagonists but it would be peculiarly worrying if Mr Putin were going to such lengths to put a minor player out of commission.

The Kremlin, predictably, denies these charges vehemently, dismissing them as "pure nonsense". However dubious such protestations of innocence may be, the absence of any clear proof combined with categorical denials from Mr Putin's officials put the British government in an awkward diplomatic position.

Speculation that enemies of the Putin regime might have perpetrated the crime in an attempt to discredit the Russian presidency seem far-fetched but for official purposes cannot be totally dismissed.

But the British government cannot be seen to accept a situation in which a citizen of the United Kingdom is subjected to a murderous attack under conditions that raise grave, and reasonable, suspicions of the involvement of foreign agents.

The Foreign and Home Offices must be seen to pursue this case with the greatest rigour and to the highest possible level, and to demand whatever explanations they feel are required from the Russian authorities. Otherwise, there will be a clear suggestion that Britain dare not offend a Russian regime that may hold much of Europe to ransom over energy resources within a decade.

Whatever the future holds for British energy supplies, this country must not be a safe haven for international thuggery.

 

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