Poisoned relations

The slow death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by a radioactive substance in London last November, has come to symbolize the gradual poisoning of relations between Russia and the West. Recent developments have dashed expectations created during the recent meeting of Bush and Putin in Maine. Britain’s decision to expel four Russian diplomats and Moscow’s retaliatory measures have sparked a diplomatic war, prompting cliched parallels with the Cold War days. London said the decision was made to protest Moscow’s refusal to extradite the main suspect, Andrei Lugovoi. Moscow says that the Russian constitution does not allow the extradition of a Russian citizen, while also pointing out that London has refused to hand over Russians wanted by Russia, including Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev and fugitive billionaire Boris Berezovsky (who told The Guardian in April that he was funding Putin’s violent overthrow). Under different circumstances the incident would be a storm in a teacup. Reciprocal extraditions also took place in 1996, when Boris Yeltsin was president, without inflicting any permanent damage on bilateral ties. More recently, the US refused to hand over CIA agents to Italy in the case of CIA flights and prisoner renditions, but the Prodi government never really considered launching a diplomatic war. The row with Britain however has deepened Russia’s split with the West: Kosovo, missile shield, arms control, and NATO expansion. And this time, Russia is on the defense. After all, the Bush administration withdrew from the ABM treaty, has encircled Russia with bases in Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania, and effectively violated the CFE treaty. Bush’s Russophobic policy threatens to cause cracks in Moscow’s ties with Europe, as the continent once again appears to be divided and paralyzed.

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