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It is all depressingly familiar.
Another opponent of the Russian regime now lies poisoned, fighting for his life in a Western hospital. The substance which has harmed Alexei Navalny appears to be Novichok, part of a group of advanced nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union, and exactly the same substance used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on the streets of Salisbury in March 2018.
Just as predictably, Moscow is denying any responsibility, with the redoubtable Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, demanding to ‘see the facts’, in the full knowledge that the real answer to her question lies with her own government. And yet again, a dispute is developing among Western governments about the merits of imposing fresh sanctions or other punitive measures on a Russian regime which appears to defy all international norms.
Much can change in the weeks ahead, as further information about the Navalny episode comes to light. But even at this early stage in this drama certain policy-relevant conclusions can be drawn.
The first is that, in the context of Russian politics and Vladimir Putin’s governance methods, removing Navalny from the scene at this stage makes perfect sense. Alexei Navalny, now 44, came to national prominence a decade ago when Russia experienced the biggest wave of anti-government demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2013, he received a long jail sentence for alleged embezzlement and since then, Navalny has been arrested so many times that he claims to keep a bag of essentials for a long spell in the cells at the ready.
He has also suffered at least two serious physical attacks. The first happened in 2017, when unknown individuals inflicted burns on his eyes by splashing him with chemically-treated ink; the second attack occurred last year when, while in police custody, he was rushed to hospital for what he claimed was poisoning, although the Russian authorities dismissed that complaint as just an ‘allergic reaction’.
Yet nothing has stopped Navalny’s rise to the position of one of Russia’s most substantial opposition leaders. The secret of his success is that Navalny is an attractive public speaker with a knack for catchy phrases: his dismissal of the ruling United Russia party, Putin’s political movement, as ‘the party of crooks and thieves’ is a jibe which has stuck.
Navalny is also a resourceful politician. His latest technique of using drones to photograph the vast houses of Russia’s political elite in restricted areas outside Moscow and then post the videos online has severely rattled the authorities. This is how ordinary Russians learnt that Dmitry Medvedev, their former president and long-serving prime minister, has a dacha set in 80 hectares of land, complete with an artificial lake and no fewer than three helipads.
In short, Navalny is not a dissident, an intellectual feted in Western literary salons, or merely a ‘blogger’, as some less-informed media commentaries put it. He is a key opposition leader, a resourceful individual, a man with plenty of talent and – at least until now – plenty of years ahead of him.
The Putin regime is not a Soviet-style dictatorship. It does tolerate dissent and it does allow criticism. What the regime will not tolerate, however, is the emergence of any single unifying opposition figure who looks likely to be able to form an alternative source of power. And it also knows that such a person needs to be eliminated – either politically or, if necessary, physically – well before they become world-famous. For, after an opposition figure gets too famous, it is much more difficult to eliminate him – not even the Soviet Union was able to completely silence someone like Andrei Sakharov.
Seen from this perspective, Navalny fits the ‘he must disappear’ strategy perfectly; indeed, it could be argued that the previous attacks on him already dangerously boosted his reputation. And the timing of the attack on him also makes perfect sense: it comes just as demonstrations in Russia’s Far East show no signs of abating, just as Russia’s economy is nosediving as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and just as we witness democratic stirrings in neighbouring Belarus, all the sorts of political portends Putin dreads most.
In fact, a clear indication that Putin was especially worried about Navalny’s challenge came earlier this year, when the Russian president rammed through changes to his country’s constitution. One of these amendments decrees that a future Russian presidential candidate must have lived in Russia for 25 uninterrupted years and have never had a foreign passport or residency permit. That curious provision was almost certainly deliberately tailored to exclude Alexei Navalny, who has studied at Yale University.
Who Did It?
It is tempting to suggest that Navalny’s attempted assassination was not authorised by Putin himself, but by some rogue associates who wished to endear themselves to the ‘boss’, an explanation along the lines of the old adage of ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’.
Another interpretation is that the assassination attempt is part of Russia’s long history of contract killings by various mafia gangs, and therefore not politically motivated at all. That is how the authorities explained the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a leading opposition journalist in 2006, or the shooting of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015.
Of course, in Russia, the interests of the political elite and organised crime frequently overlap, so there may be multiple simultaneous reasons for wanting Navalny dead, especially since it appears that, while in the city of Tomsk, the opposition leader was conducting investigations.
Still, from what we know – as we now do from the results of the clinical investigation performed by the German government – the substance which almost killed Navalny is Novichok. It stretches credulity to believe that military-grade nerve agents originally developed by the Soviet military and deployed in the past by Russian government agents could have now fallen into the hands of other non-state actors. And as things currently stand, it is still implausible to suggest that an attack on such a high-profile figure could have been performed without prior authorisation from the very top in the Kremlin.
Dead or Alive?
The truly interesting question is whether the Kremlin wanted him dead, or merely wanted to remind Navalny that he is a mere mortal and that he needs to be careful about his actions.
No decisive answer can be provided at this stage, but it is quite possible that, just as in the case of the Skripals, the intention was indeed to eliminate Navalny, but the perpetrators simply failed to take all variables into account.
The first unforeseen variable for the perpetrators of this assassination could have been the reaction of the pilots on the plane which Navalny took on his return to Moscow after a trip to Siberia once they were faced with the medical emergency. When Navalny fell ill on board, the pilots could have decided to go on to Moscow, by which time it is possible that their passenger would have been far closer to death. But instead, they made an emergency landing in Omsk, a city more than 2,000 kilometres away from the Russian capital, where Navalny was taken to hospital. That could have made all the difference.
The second unforeseen variable was provided by the doctors at the hospital where Navalny ended up. Although the doctors subsequently obfuscated by claiming that that ‘no poison has been detected’ in Navalny's body and by blaming his condition on allegedly low sugar levels, it appears that in the very early stages they offered him the correct treatment; their obfuscation only came later, after Navalny’s plight gained international attention and the top authorities in Moscow intervened.
And then there was the matter of the offer to fly Navalny to Germany, something the Russian authorities could not have anticipated. Moscow prevaricated by risibly claiming that Navalny was both out of danger yet at the same time too weak to be flown out. But ultimately the Kremlin relented, perhaps because it understood that holding Navalny at home and seeing him die in a blaze of publicity was too much for Russia to handle, or perhaps because the Kremlin assumed that the Novichok would no longer be traceable.
Either way, it is perfectly possible to suggest that the operation was indeed intended to kill Navalny, but that it went wrong, with the perpetrators not calculating that Navalny’s flight would be much shorter than anticipated, his medical treatment much earlier than anyone assumed feasible and the international reaction much more pronounced than the Kremlin expected.
And if this interpretation is correct, it actually provides the only potentially uplifting outcome of this grim tale, namely that despite Putin’s determination to obliterate his opponents, despite his authoritarian domestic rule and the free hand which his assassins seem to enjoy, the Russian leader is not in complete control of everything in his own country.
Recovery from such an attack will be slow and uncertain. And it remains to be seen whether Putin will allow Navalny to return to Russia, assuming he is fit and willing to travel. Nonetheless, Putin’s worst nightmare is now nearer to coming true: he could be faced with an opposition leader who has the credibility, talent, and international stature to pose a real danger to the Kremlin.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.