SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—A few years ago, I had a chance to do some in-depth research into the war that Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru’s de facto spymaster, was waging against a small group of journalists, former spies and an exiled businessman intent on bringing an end to Alberto Fujimori’s regime. It was not a pretty affair—the dictatorship killed, tortured, imprisoned or caused various critics to flee the country before it came crumbling down.

As I delved into the cloak-and-dagger world of Montesinos’ dirty war, I learned three lessons, all of which came back to me last week as I read the spooky saga of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who died after being poisoned in London with a byproduct of uranium.

First, in a struggle between a ruthless regime and a small bunch of committed defectors, the former is a pretty good judge of the strength of its enemy. Second, no matter how impotent the critics seem in the early stages of their effort, the combination of former spies who defy their old bosses, a businessman able to fund them, and a safe haven abroad can be lethal to the regime. This applies even when the “safe” haven proves to be not so safe for some of the opponents. Third, the struggle for liberation is inevitably tainted with moral ambiguity because the most effective information usually comes from regime insiders who are themselves part of what they denounce, and because motives such as revenge, opportunism or greed often coexist with the desire for freedom. The moral ambiguity of the people involved in the just cause, of course, does not detract from the need to pursue it.

I don’t know if Litvinenko was poisoned under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s orders, but what is important here is not so much whether that was the case as the perception that Putin is capable of doing such a thing. His background as a spy in the Soviet-era KGB, the fact that his regime has done away with most democratic checks and balances, and the evidence that many of his critics, including journalist Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered recently point to that possibility. Russia has returned to the time of the czars, with organized crime now playing the role of the aristocracy, ordinary citizens playing the role of the serfs, and defectors from the KGB and its successor, the FSB, playing the revolutionaries determined to bring down the old order.

Few people inside or outside of Russia have paid much attention to these journalists and informants, or to Boris Berezovsky, the businessman who funds part of the effort to expose the autocratic regime from London. And yet Putin and his secret service clearly understand how dangerous these people are precisely because they possess those things I mentioned in relation to Peru’s secret war: a combination of inside information, journalistic zeal and funding; a sanctuary in London where most exiles can expect to endure for as long as necessary; and the moral ambiguity necessary to be effective. Many of Putin’s enemies, including Litvinenko and businessman Berezovsky, were once part of that system which they have spent so much energy fighting against.

Of course, this will be a long struggle. The Putin government and the mafias that operate under its tolerant eye are mighty, the war on terror provides the Kremlin with cover, and the European Union is heavily dependent on the natural gas supplied by Gazprom, the Russian state monopoly. But if that small group of committed critics is able to withstand the “nuclear” attacks (in the case of Litvinenko, quite literally) coming from the government in Moscow or the mafias, it will eventually prevail. That is not to say that what will replace the current government will be Jeffersonian democracy. It simply means that the crimes being committed by the current autocrats in Moscow will be punished—as they have been in Peru, where Montesinos is in jail—thanks to the persistent activities of Putin’s seemingly isolated enemies. What these people have been trying to tell us will eventually become common knowledge: that, almost two decades after renouncing communism, Russia is a lawless society intent on continuing a tradition of brute force against anything that gets in its way.