Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Russia is Saudi Arabia with nukes
Corriere della Sera - December 6th 2006

The atmosphere in London is creative, excited and a little bit scared. For almost the only theory that has not been circulated seriously about the radiation poisoning with polonium 210 of a former Russian KGB officer, Alexander Litvinenko, is that it was all a stunt to publicise the new James Bond movie. But why not? It will certainly have worked, since it has restored Russians in the popular mind to the status of shady and ruthless villains, equipped with fiendish secret laboratories, that had been developed in countless Bond movies but which had lost its plausibility with the fall of the Soviet Union.

            Yes, yes, I know that even Hollywood producers would not go quite that far to promote their films. But my point is that the investigation into the murder has become over-shadowed by a battle of theories, which is really a battle of public relations spin. The most popular initial theory was that the murder had been ordered by President Vladimir Putin himself in order to stop Mr Litvinenko discovering the truth about another murder, that of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist; but to counter that theory two more ideas were circulated: first, that Mr Litvinenko might have committed suicide, in order to discredit his arch-enemy, President Putin; and then, more plausibly, a second theory, that the dramatic radiation poisoning was carried out by a group of "rogue agents" in the FSB, the new name for the KGB, who are intent on destabilising Russia itself by discrediting Mr Putin and the Kremlin.

            Which theory (if any) is true? We may never know, but we certainly won´t until or unless the British police find some evidence linking the radiation poisoning to some specific people. But perhaps this doesn´t matter, for this whole episode has, I would argue, told us something important about the nature of Russia itself.

            During the 1990s, a common concern expressed by foreign-policy thinkers was that the danger with post-Soviet Russia was that it could become "Ivory Coast with nukes". What was meant by this slogan was that Russia, with its weak, chaotic economy, could become like an impoverished and unstable African state, but with the dangerous qualification that it possesses a large armoury of nuclear weapons. Incompetence and collapse would be its main feature. But, thanks to the nukes, Russia´s failure would not be just a problem for its own citizens; it risked becoming a problem for the world.

            Now, we can see that this was wrong. It failed to anticipate the possibility of energy prices soaring, as they have since 1998 (the year when Russia defaulted on its debts) and especially since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Russia´s economy is booming. Signs of wealth can be seen all over the country. This is not a failed African state. A Russian billionaire owns Chelsea football club, after all. Nor is it as riven with incompetence as the tragic sinking of the submarine Kursk implied just a few years ago.

            It is not, however, a normal industrialised country, with wealth coming from a diverse set of sources and spread among a wide range of people. It is a country where the wealth overwhelmingly comes from oil, gas and some mineral resources. As in Saudi Arabia, that means that when prices are high there is a vast flow of cash gurgling down the pipelines, a flow that provides riches to the lucky few who can control the revenues. But unlike in Saudi Arabia there is not a convenient royal family in Russia to define who is entitled to a share of this cash (they were shot in 1917). So Russian politics consists of a struggle, faction against faction, for access to the cash flow.

            The fact that Russia is "Saudi Arabia with nukes" has two consequences for the rest of us. It means that this struggle is equipped with the most sophisticated and dangerous technology, as used n the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. And, second, it means that when prices fall, as they certainly will, the possibility of failure could return, and with it a much more intense struggle for control of the dwindling cash flow. We all want energy prices to fall. But when they do, one place to worry a lot about will be Russia.


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