What, and more importantly who, killed Alexander Litvinenko? The answers could determine whether the Cold War's deadly game of espionage, betrayal and assassination has heated up again under the increasingly dictatorial rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a deathbed statement, Litvinenko put the blame on Putin for the poisoning that took the former KGB spy's life Thursday.
Litvinenko's heart gave out after a three-week struggle for life in intensive care at a London hospital. He used his last strength to dictate a farewell statement that turned into an indictment of Putin, a former KGB hand himself.
"You may succeed in silencing me, but that silence comes at a price," Litvinenko said. "You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed."
It's a bad time for the West to face another destabilizing force as clashes with radical Islam also build. Although Putin denied any involvement in Litvinenko's death, there is growing evidence that his government either actively targets its critics or looks the other way as criminal elements do so.
Details of the poisoning indicate a conspiracy at the highest levels of government. British investigators still aren't sure how Litvinenko was poisoned, although a radioactive substance was found in his body. The fear is that the Russian intelligence agency Federal Security Service (a spin-off of the KGB) has discovered a deadly new tactic for silencing its critics.
Litvinenko had repudiated his KGB past and was an active dissident. At the time he was likely poisoned, he was gathering information about the FSS' involvement in the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had exposed Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya. She was gunned down last month in a murder that has yet to be solved.
A couple of years ago, Putin ordered a review of his country's history textbooks because one dared to ask whether he could be viewed as a dictator of a police state. The debate over Putin's place in Russian history is now settled. He has dragged his people back to the old days of fear and repression.