Don’t expect Europe to hold Putin accountable in Navalny poisoning
Vladimir Putin is a notorious risk-taker. Many of his ventures have paid off for him, but did his luck run out when a suspected plot to take out opposition leader Aleksei Navalny veered wildly off course? Instead of being pronounced dead from “natural causes” upon arriving on a flight to Moscow, as was purportedly planned, Navalny lies in a coma in a Berlin hospital, full of a poison accessible only to the Russian military and its Kremlin-successor security service, the FSB.
Here was Putin’s original plan, as pieced together by Navalny’s team:
Navalny’s political organizing in Russia’s Far East and the Belarus periphery was threatening to create a real opposition force in Russia’s parliament and regional governorships. Out of this concern, the Kremlin allegedly charged the FSB with poisoning Navalny in Tomsk shortly before his five-hour flight to Moscow. Most likely, Navalny ingested the poison; otherwise his travel companions would also have been exposed, too. Navalny was supposed to die en route. This appears not to be an attempt to frighten but an intent to murder.
The plan went awry when the airliner’s pilot made an emergency landing in Omsk, ignoring a reported bomb threat. Once Navalny was hospitalized in Omsk, foreign leaders raised concerns about his safety. Under intense pressure, FSB officers (reportedly dressed as civilians) allowed Navalny to be flown to Berlin, where German doctors detected poisoning with Novichok – a deadly nerve agent used by Russian agents in other poisonings.
Putin widely touts his “power vertical.” By this, he means the extreme concentration of authority under his genial guidance. The “power vertical” rules out maverick forces that, say, might poison a prominent opposition figure without approval from the vertical’s top gun. In Putin’s power vertical, access to the world’s deadliest poisons, like Novichok, could be granted only by the person at the top.
Notably, Putin tends to follow the letter of Russian law. If the law is inconvenient (such as the two-term limit on his presidency), he changes it. In the case of two political defectors living in the United Kingdom — former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, and former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in 2018 — Putin could claim that their poisonings fell under Russia’s 2006 anti-terrorism law. Indeed, Putin shrugged off British protests by granting parliamentary immunity to one of two alleged Litvinenko assassins. A decade later, Putin cavalierly taunted the British government that the Skripals’ assassins were innocently on a tour of medieval cathedrals.
Navalny is a different matter. Putin had chosen simply to ignore him and is known for never saying his name in public. In current press statements, Navalny is referred to as “the Berlin patient.” In effect, Navalny does not exist and, as such, cannot be an enemy of the state, legally subject to a sentence of extrajudicial death. Putin cannot dismiss Navalny’s poisoning with the wink and a nod that he was acting according to Russian law against a notorious traitor.
Putin faces a failed attempted murder for which he has the motive (remove a political threat) and the means (deadly poison controlled by his military). Yet he is unlikely to pay a significant price for the following reasons:
First, the “outraged” European Union can only issue new penalties on the basis of unanimity, and there are a number of Russian “friends” in the EU. Anything that comes out of the EU will be just talk.
Second, the EU bloc can impose new sanctions on Russia only after an investigation reveals who was responsible for Navalny’s poisoning.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that any German or European response would depend on whether Russia helps to clear up the case. (This means Europe must sit around waiting for the Kremlin to develop its excuses for not investigating).
Third, the widespread calls for a “transparent” investigation are obviously hollow, when the chief suspect is the authoritarian leader of a rogue nation. Yes, Putin can go through the motions and even invite in foreign observers. He could put “suspects” on a sham trial, after which they would disappear into prison. That’s the best Western critics can hope for – a whitewash and diversion of blame to minor operators.
Fourth, in the end, the only “proof” will be the general understanding that the attempted murder of Navalny must be approved at the top, and that type of proof does not work in Western jurisprudence.
Finally, the only real punishment that could catch Putin’s attention would be the cancellation by Germany of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which stretches directly from Russia to Germany. Merkel’s coalition partner, the SPD, strongly favors Nord Stream 2 and argues that Germany does not wear a “white vest” in its dealings with other energy-rich countries. Although other German political parties (for example, the Greens) and some members of Merkel’s own party propose to close down Nord Stream 2, the “this is just business” members of the ruling coalition will win in the end. At best, the completion of Nord Stream 2 might be delayed, but Russia can wait it out.
The Kremlin’s response to Merkel’s announcement of the “attempted murder” of Navalny follows Putin’s standard modus operandi when he is caught. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejects any suggestion that Russia was behind the attack and warns against “our partners in Germany and other European countries [hurrying] with their assessments.” Russia’s foreign intelligence agency charges that “Western intelligence agencies may have orchestrated the poisoning to stir up trouble.” Russian prosecutors see no reason to launch a criminal investigation when there is no sign of a crime. Russian doctors concluded that Navalny had an upset stomach.
In other words, there will be no “transparent” investigation.
The Western world is not able to deal with a rogue state located in its heartland. Russian forces still occupy Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Georgian territory; Russia still denies being involved in shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Russia ranks among the most dangerous countries for journalists, and any number of political assassinations remain unresolved. It seems that only the Russian people – somehow, some day – can find a solution.
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.