The British government's announcement that it wants to charge ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi in Alexander Litvinenko's murder - and the Kremlin's decision not to extradite him - is further proof (as if any more were required) of what Russia has become under Vladimir Putin: a rogue state that no longer cares what the West thinks of it. One apparently capable of carrying out spectacular political assassinations in other countries, and then of ignoring the international community's demands that the alleged killers face justice.
Even if Putin himself didn't order the Litvinenko hit, someone else with close ties to the KGB/FSB apparatus almost certainly did. You don't just buy Polonium-210 from a pharmacy, even in Russia. Nor do you keep it in a drawer for years after you leave your KGB job. It's entirely reasonable to assume that the Kremlin knows who did this.
If Putin didn't order the hit, it's almost as disturbing as if he did because it means that he has little control over what the security apparatus does at home or abroad. His unwilligness to hand Lugovoi over to the British police (who are not known for politically motivated prosecutions, despite Lugovoi's protests) suggests that he's either complicit in the killing, or that his hands are tied in the matter. Both versions are chilling.
There's no making light of this one. Litvinenko's killing not only silenced a prominent Putin critic, but the chosen method put any Londoner who happened to frequent the same restaurant or hotel as Litvinenko at grave risk. (I myself have stayed at the Millennium Mayfair hotel, albeit months later.)
The whole episode hammers home the truth of the 2000 elections that brought Vladimir Putin to power. This was not the "peaceful transition" that the Western media hailed it to be at the time. It was a quiet, efficient KGB coup.
Boris Yeltsin, whose corruption in office had long since compromised the principles he once fought for, was forced aside by the KGB that he dismantled and then reformed under a new name. He sold the country that he had helped liberate back to those he had liberated it from in exchange for immunity from prosecution for he and his family.
Putin brought with him to the Kremlin a phalanx of other KGB agents (I've dropped the "ex-" bit here since even Putin had admitted that once a chekist, always a chekist, referring to the original incarnation of the Soviet security services, the Cheka). Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya says that the percentage of siloviki or "men of power" (which she defines as those from police, military or security services backgrounds) in positions of influence in the Kremlin increased from less than 5 per cent in Mikhail Gorbachev's day to almost 55 per cent by the end of Putin's first term. That figure has continued to rise.
With them, they brought back the old assumptions: Russia is a global power that has the right to a "sphere of influence" over its neighbours and whose interests are fundamentally opposed to the West. They also apparently brought with them the old Soviet habit of violently eliminating dissent.
Litvinenko understood what had happened and tried to tell the world. An old agent himself, he understood that in doing so he had broken the KGB code. To the unreformed chekists in the Kremlin, that meant he had to be punished appropriately.