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Dan Liljenquist: Being ambassador to Russia in the era of Putinism

FILE"” Jon Huntsman Jr. answers a question during a Deseret News, KSL editorial board meeting In Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.
FILE"” Jon Huntsman Jr. answers a question during a Deseret News, KSL editorial board meeting In Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

I must admit that I do not envy Jon Huntsman Jr. Despite President Donald Trump’s personal admiration for Vladimir Putin (which, at best, demonstrates Trump’s spectacular and dangerous naiveté about who Putin is), U.S. relations with Russia are the worst they have been since the end of the Cold War. Under the iron-fisted but velvet-gloved leadership of Putin, Russia is reasserting its regional hegemony to near-USSR levels, this time with better branding.

For those of us who remember what it was like to grow up during the Cold War, Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems much less menacing. Gone are the days of communism and its direct ideological challenge to our concept of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Gone are the May Day parades with dozens of nuclear warheads slipping past stoic, poker-faced Politburo members in full military regalia. Gone is the ever-present specter of global thermonuclear war and the silly “crawl under your desk” drills that elementary schoolchildren endured.

Today’s Russia, with its ostentatious wealth and its patina of democracy, looks like an entirely different country.

But Russia under the leadership of Putin and his cronies is not much different from the Russia of old. While Putin has repudiated communism, calling it a “blind alley, far from the mainstream of civilization,” he has not abandoned the heavy-handed tactics that once held communism together in Russia.

Putin and his closest political allies are all illustrious alumni of the former USSR’s security services, including the KGB and GRU. They are skilled practitioners of intrigue, coercion, propaganda, oppression and force and have used these techniques to grasp and consolidate their power in Russia.

Putin and his cronies claim they have a democratic mandate from the Russian people, but they stoke nationalistic fervor through a captive media while at the same time silencing their political detractors.

Leaving aside the more obvious acts of Russian aggression, including the annexation of Crimea and the brutal military repression of independence-minded Chechnya, if Huntsman wants a clear-eyed view into the lengths Putin and his sycophants are willing to go to settle personal vendettas, he should read "The Litvinenko Inquiry: Report into the Death of Alexander Litvinenko," commissioned by the British government and delivered to Parliament on Jan. 21, 2016. The report details the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer, British citizen and outspoken Putin critic, who was fatally poisoned with polonium-210 in November 2006.

Litvinenko saw firsthand the corruption of the Putin regime and wrote two books accusing Russian secret services of engaging in acts of corruption and terrorism in an effort to propel Putin to power.

On Nov. 1, 2006, at London’s Millennium Hotel, Litvinenko drank a mouthful of tea laced with polonium-210 served to him by two Russian “businessmen” with close ties to Putin. Polonium-210 is a rare, highly radioactive substance that is 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide, is only produced in Russia and costs millions of dollars per microgram.

A single grain of polonium-210 — as small as a grain of salt — was enough to kill Litvinenko, who became violently ill within minutes of ingesting the poison. He died 22 days later, his body ripped apart by alpha radiation. But before he died, Litvinenko recounted every detail of his own murder and helped point the finger in the direction of Putin; the Litvinenko Inquiry put the rest of the puzzle pieces together.

All indications point to Putin as the man who ordered Litvinenko’s assassination. This is the man Huntsman will be dealing with as ambassador to Russia. Huntsman should be careful not to drink Putin’s tea.