We mustn't jump to any hasty conclusions, dear me, no. The fact that Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer who defected to Britain, claims that he has been poisoned by his erstwhile employers, proves nothing. The fact that Litvinenko was investigating the recent assassination of the dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya, proves nothing. The fact that he is a close associate of Boris Berezovsky, Putin's greatest enemy in this country, proves nothing. But the fact that the Russian government has described as "gibberish" the claim that it is behind the poisoning of Litvinenko also proves nothing.
Those who think it incredible that the post-Soviet leadership of Russia would murder its opponents on the territory of a friendly country should cast their minds back to 13 February 2004 when Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the former president of Chechnya, was blown up by a car bomb in the capital of Qatar after leaving his local mosque. Two local officers in the FSB, the successor organisation to the KGB, were tried and found guilty of Yandarbiyev's murder after the judge concluded that the assassination was "ordered by the Russian leadership".
Yet within a year of that verdict, after intense pressure from Moscow, the Emir of Qatar freed the men. It was reported that the FSB agents, Anatoly Belashkov and Vassily Bokchov, were served "celebratory drinks" on the flight home to Moscow, and were greeted by a red carpet and dignitaries on arrival at Vnukovo airport - although Russian television crews were ordered to switch off their cameras just before the FSB officers emerged from their aircraft.
Interestingly, Alexander Litvinenko wrote at some length about the Yandarbiyev assassination on the pro-separatist website, Chechenpress. Litvinenko, who had been a close colleague of Vladimir Putin in the KGB, insisted that the organisation had continued to carry out killings in foreign countries right up to the end of the Soviet era - the official line was that such acts had ended with the death of Stalin. "Before each such action," he wrote, "and also upon its completion the head of the KGB personally reported on it to the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee. He received the authorisation for it to be carried out - along with the money, diplomatic passports, and all other items needed." Litvinenko added that he had "no doubt" that the Qatar job had been personally authorised by Vladimir Putin.
It is undeniable that in the Chechen separatist movement, Russia has an enemy of unusual savagery - the Beslan siege is dreadful testimony to that. It is equally undeniable that Yandarbiyev was not judged to be a terrorist by Russia alone - he was on a UN blacklist as well. When it comes to the battle with the Muslim Chechens Putin's view is that this is his equivalent of the American war with al-Qa'ida: and, after all, haven't the Americans assassinated al-Qa'ida operatives in "friendly" countries such as Yemen and Pakistan?
London has become part of the Russian battlefield against the Chechen independence movement. Three years ago Putin's government was furious when it failed in an attempt to extradite as a terrorist the former Chechen vice-president Ahmed Zakayev. The High Court judge, however, had not been impressed when the star Russian witness, Dukvaha Deshuyev, failed to corroborate claims that he had been tortured by Zakayev's men. In fact, Deshuyev told the court, his "evidence" had been beaten out of him by the FSB, and he unequivocally retracted it.
Blackly entertaining as this is, it seems far removed from the case of Alexander Litvinenko. In fact, Litvinenko is intimately involved in the war between Putin and the Chechens: in his new guise as an investigative journalist he has been assiduous in tracking the story of Russian atrocities in Chechnya. This was the same story that Anna Politkovskaya was working on at the time of her assassination: and as we now know, Litvinenko's poisoning took place just before a meeting in which he was due to receive documents relating to the murder of Ms Politkovskaya.
It is obviously possible that the murder of Politkovskaya and the poisoning of Litvinenko were carried out by "rogue elements" in the FSB, without the knowledge or consent of President Putin. But what would that tell us about the state of government in Russia? It would reveal that it is, like much of Russian business, dominated by gangsterism.
Mr Putin has been welcomed as a friend by both George Bush and Tony Blair; both men feel, I suspect, that as a democratically elected leader, he is a colleague in every respect. It is the great illusion of modern Western politicians that democracy equals civilisation. That is a most inaccurate calculation, as America has learnt to its - and our - cost in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that both those countries now have democratically elected leaders has not advanced them one inch in the direction of civil order or justice. This should not be surprising. The bedrock of civil order is not equal rights at the ballot box, but equality before the law. That demands a complete respect for property rights, the most important of all such rights being the security of one's own home.
The history of this country bears witness to that truth: Britain was a smoothly functioning and peaceful civil society long before the advent of the universal franchise. The point was that its leaders, while not elected by the whole of society, were subject to the rule of law. The problem for Russia today is no different from the cause of its miseries throughout its history; it is and has always been ruled by men, not laws. With the fall of Communism, Russia ceased to be a totalitarian state; but it is still one in which the most powerful have attained their position - and maintain it - by the exercise of brute force, even murder.
The other essential component of a free society is a free press. Again, we in Britain enjoyed that blessing before we became a fully-fledged democracy; again, Russia under Putin has increasingly reverted to type. Politkovskaya was by no means the first Russian newspaper journalist in recent years to be censored by a bullet to the back of the head.
Meanwhile, what should be the response of the British government to the attempted assassination of one of its own citizens - Litvinenko has a UK passport - on British soil? It is all very well Mr Blair announcing, as he did yesterday in Afghanistan, that "we" have no alternative to fighting and winning a war against the Taliban. The first objective of any government's foreign policy is to protect its own citizens in its own land. Wringing of hands and expressions of regret may be the preferred official line in circumstances such as these; but if this is a government worthy of the name it might actually decide to do something.Reuse content