Putin Strikes on the Costa Del Sol

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Vladimir Gusinsky and his lawyer Henry Reznik in Moscow

The long arm of President Vladimir Putin on Monday reached all the way to the Spanish seaside resort of Sotogrande, where Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky was detained overnight by Spanish police executing an international arrest warrant. Gusinsky, whose independent Media-Most empire has long been regarded as a thorn in the Kremlin's side, is wanted in Moscow on charges of embezzlement, but has been living primarily in exile since his release after spending three days in prison in June.

Requesting the arrest is a high-stakes maneuver for Putin, in light of Gusinsky's efforts to portray the legal proceedings against him as nothing more than a political witch hunt. The spectacle of Gusinsky being sent home in handcuffs by Spanish law enforcement officers will undermine his claims to martyrdom — at least in the court of Russian public opinion. But then the converse may also be true: If Spain's courts fail to find merit in the case brought by Russia, it may actually help Gusinsky paint himself as the victim of political machinations.

The mogul's lawyers are confident they can beat the rap when the extradition hearing goes before the high court in Madrid. Spain, they point out, has no extradition treaty with Russia. Then again, the fact that Gusinsky was held in a nighttime swoop on his villa rather than when he passed through immigration suggests that his arrest was not simply triggered by the presence of his name in Interpol's computers. Some political commentators in Russia have even begun speculating darkly over what political favor Madrid might receive in exchange for arresting Putin's least-loved oligarch.

But the deeper question goes to Putin's motive. After all, with both Gusinsky and his arch-rival oligarch Boris Berezovsky in de facto exile, the president would appear to have disposed of two of his most significant enemies in the battle for Russian public opinion. Then again, if the object is a full-blown political and corporate takeover, or takedown, of Gusinsky's media empire, then exile may not have been enough. The next move may belong to a Spanish court, but the real mystery is Putin's wider game plan. And as ever with the poker-faced president, it's simply too early to tell.