I never thought I'd see the day where the murder of a Russian dissident topped a local shooting or a celebrity divorce on the cover of the New York Post. But, dear friends, that day has come to pass.
Today, every man, woman, and child that walked into a grocery store or deli in New York had two words staring back at them - Putin and poison. In some ways this phenomenon - of the West viewing Russian President Vladimir Putin as basically a low-life scumbag - to put it bluntly, is the result of the Anglo-American alliance failing to find new enemies in the War on Terror. Osama bin Laden hasn't released a video in awhile, Zarqawi is dead, Ahmadinejad just isn't that funny anymore, and well, Putin is just so easy to despise because he's your stereotypical short guy (5'7" / 170 cm) that enjoys imagining himself as powerful.
With Saddam sentenced to death, we need someone to fear and dislike, and Russia is certain to be as appetizing the second time around as it was 20 years ago. What is interesting though is that this is all happening because of the murder of Aleksander Litvinenko - a former FSB agent who said publicly that he was ordered to kill Boris Berezovsky. Hardly the kind of guy you'd cry for when compared to Anna Politkovskaja, whose books can be found in any quality public library across the US. Yet it is Litvinenko's death that just won't die, not Politkovskaja's. It perhaps is because he died on British soil, or because the polonium fall out from his death has been traced back to Russia, or perhaps because another 150 dead in Baghdad warrants a shrug of the shoulders in America these days.
Whatever the reason, the total lack of transparency of the Russian Federation leads Western media to speculate that a malevolent Putin ordered the hit with a Judo chop of his hand. While that explanation may have merit, it is also the easiest. Less attractive is the "rogue elements" hypothesis. That murky ex-FSB officers did it - and even if they are caught, it will be so much LESS fun than the "Putin did it" hypothesis. And so we continue to indulge in adding mystique to our newly discovered opponent, Vladimir Putin.
What does this mean for the world's only post-communist nordic country? According to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, Estonians are "immoral" and "blasphemous" for equating Nazis and Communists. Most of the Russian media will have you believe that Andrus Ansip gives himself the old fascist salute in the mirror every morning. And, more realstically, relations are still shaky, as The Economist pointed out this week. Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians are secretly afraid that .. um, Putinists will come again and ruin everything ... again.
While that option is still relegated to "What if?" Internet discussion, I think a genuine foreign policy question for those who live in what Russia considers Pribaltika should consider is, "What can be done to ensure Russia doesn't see US as the enemy next time around?" As they stated through the SVR disclosure two weeks ago, they occupied the Baltics because they were "pro-German." If the Anglo and Russian relations continue to deteriorate, will Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians once again find themselves stuck between the devil and the Baltic Sea, with grinning Finns saying "tsk! tsk! you should have made Russian a second-official language, we told you so!"?
Anyway, things are not swell right now. The American government is weak, we are not accomplishing what we have set out to accomplish, and Putin has an 87 percent approval rating. Let's hope things stay balanced, if uneasy, through 2008 when we'll have a much better look at the lay of the land.