Is Putin getting away with poisoning another political opponent?
Aleksei Navalny, the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation headquartered in Moscow, is one of the last-standing political opponents of Vladimir Putin. His tightly researched, well-documented reports on the corruption of high-level Kremlin officials have been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. Not only that, but Navalny has engaged in regional and local politics in a manner that could diminish Putin’s control over the vast Russian Federation.
The morning of Aug. 20, Navalny was on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow when he began to experience extreme pain and disorientation. The flight was diverted to Omsk, where he was transferred to the local hospital in a coma. Omsk doctors hooked him up to a ventilator and listed his condition as comatose, critical but stable.
According to Navalny’s travel companions, he did not eat prior to the flight but, in the airport, drank hot tea. (Navalny drinking tea in the airport and later screaming on the plane are both documented on film.)
Various reports from the hospital maintained that Omsk doctors were not allowing Navalny’s wife and his personal doctor to see the patient, despite Russian laws that guarantee such rights. For days, hospital officials refused to discharge Navalny for an air transfer arranged by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for treatment in Europe.
Even the most authoritative Russian press speak of poisoning — “otravlenie” — as the cause of Navalny’s condition. Notably, the Omsk hospital has no specialists in exotic poisons.
The possibility of the poisoning of Russia’s leading opposition figure inevitably raises the question of who would give the order to do so.
Three of the many political assassinations of Russia’s Putin era provide some guidance in evaluating the possible poisoning of Navalny. All three of these assassinations removed opposition figures who irritated the Kremlin leadership.
The point-blank shooting of Anna Politkovskaya, in front of her Moscow apartment, in 2006 eliminated a powerful voice on the brutality and corruption of the Chechnya morass. The polonium murder of former intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, also in 2006, sent a stark signal to intelligence defectors that even British citizenship could not shield them from the Kremlin’s wrath. And the 2015 murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov by a gang of ten or more assassins on a heavily monitored Kremlin bridge taught everyone that the Kremlin can take you out anytime, anywhere; the brave — but, to some, foolhardy — Nemtsov understood that danger but proceeded with his opposition activities anyway.
Each of these murders left behind a subtle hint of Kremlin involvement: The assassination of Politkovskaya on Putin’s birthday sent a clear signal to stay clear of Chechnya; the choice of the Kremlin bridge — versus a simple bullet to Nemtsov’s head in front of his apartment — signaled to any opposition figure that there was no escape from the powers that be; Litvinenko’s death by polonium poisoning warned what a particularly horrible death awaited any defector.
It is widely presumed that assassinations of such note would have required either Putin’s order or his acquiescence. But Putin has yet to pay a personal price. For Politkovskaya and Nemtsov, Russian “justice” conjured up scapegoats who confessed and disappeared into prisons, their families taken care of. In the case of Litvinenko, British courts could find only two Russian intelligence officers guilty in absentia but could pin no personal blame on Putin.
Putin’s experience so far has been that political assassinations stir up a fuss that is quickly forgotten, particularly in the West.
What, then, are Navalny’s sins that could have made him the target for political assassination?
Navalny and his representatives were returning from Siberia where they were planning for September gubernatorial elections. With the waves of local unrest occurring across Russia, disgruntled voters are more likely than ever before to elect populist governors who are independent of Putin. To add insult to potential domestic political injury, Navalny expressed his support for the opposition to embattled Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko; Putin would consider Navalny’s endorsement of Belarusian activists as an invitation to a “color revolution” — much like the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004-2005, followed by the Euromaidan revolt in 2014. Yet another factor: Things are not going well for Putin at the moment; he faces an economic depression, a COVID-19 epidemic, unrest in the Far East of Russia, and apparent public ill will from the change in the Russian constitution to allow him two more terms.
On Saturday, Navalny was finally released from the Omsk hospital and flown to Berlin, where he remains in a coma. Irrespective of Navalny’s health outcome, we can pretty well predict what will happen next: The Kremlin will cook up all kinds of alternative explanations for Navalny’s presumed poisoning. Almost certain will be charges that Navalny poisoned himself to get back at Putin, that the CIA slipped him the poison, or that it was those dastardly Ukrainians who did so. If necessary, Putin can raise the volume to blast the entire Russian Federation with the good news that their president (for life) is not to blame.
Perhaps the tried-and-true Putin playbook will not work this time; Russia already is sufficiently riled up — and Navalny is a sympathetic figure with a beautiful wife and daughters. Maybe Putin can no longer go to this well. But does he have other tricks up his sleeve? The smart money would bet that he does.
Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.