Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
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“A riddle, wrapped in an enigma, inside a mystery.”

Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union with those words. He was speaking in October 1939, right after World War II commenced in Europe.

Churchill’s words have direct importance for continuing and current developments in the strange world of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The regime, society and underlying culture remain fundamentally different from those of the United States and the wider western world.

Alexei Navalny, a prominent and influential Russia opposition leader, is currently in a coma. German doctors state he was poisoned. Navalny is now in Berlin, flown in a secure German aircraft for specialist medical treatment.

In Britain on March 4, 2018, a police officer found Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, a city near London. Authorities immediately hospitalized them in intensive care. The nerve agent also sickened the officer, likewise hospitalized.

They were the victims of an extremely rare chemical not readily available to the public or even the criminal underworld. The military nerve agent is a product of Russia.

Skripal worked for the GRU, the military intelligence arm of Russia’s government. He also worked as a double agent for British intelligence from 1995.

In 2006, a Russia court convicted him and imposed a prison sentence of 13 years. In 2010, authorities freed him as part of a U.S.-Russian spy swap, following the exposure of a ring of Russian espionage agents in the United States.

In September 2018, opposition activist Peter Verzilov became severely ill after a court hearing related to a protest and his subsequent arrest. He also was flown to Berlin for specialist medical treatment, where poisoning was diagnosed as the likely cause.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition leader and journalist, suffered two severe health attacks in 2015 and 2017. The diagnosis in each case was probable poisoning. He is vice chairman of Open Russia, an organization founded by successful business entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a strong Putin opponent who has been persecuted and imprisoned.

A particularly prominent victim is Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in November 2006 from acute radiation poisoning. Litvinenko was a former colleague of Putin in the KGB, the principal arms of state security in the Soviet Union, an agency rightly feared for ruthless methods and effective results. Putin is a product of distinctive KGB culture.

Litvinenko defected to Britain, where he until silenced was a prominent and influential public critic of Putin and the government of Russia. After a meticulous thorough investigation, representatives of Scotland Yard testified in a public inquiry the Russian government was involved in this killing.

Earlier, critics of Russia’s regime sometimes died violently gangland style, in public. In early 2009, near the Kremlin on a sunny day on a public street, a gunman murdered activist attorney Stanislav Markelov. Journalist Anastasia Baburova was murdered as well, trying to aid him. The hit man was a practiced pro, his pistol equipped with a silencer.

Markelov had publicly denounced early release from prison of Col. Yuri Budanov, sentenced to 10 years for strangling a woman during the war in Chechnya.

Churchill observed “the key” to Russia was national interest. Alliance with the Soviet Union was vital during World War II, when our interests joined.

Today, as in the past, national interest should guide policy. Scientific collaboration, including space exploration, should continue. NATO should shield Europe. We must condemn criminal behavior, including election meddling.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.