The Kremlin, FSB, and the ‘Berlin patient’s’ underpants
Vladimir Putin has used the FSB’s aura of efficiency and brutality to threaten regime opponents with kompromat, exile, poisoning, or a bullet to the head. The Aug. 20 botched assassination of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and the embarrassing unraveling of the Kremlin’s narrative thereafter have turned the FSB into a laughingstock as memes belittling Putin and his FSB circulate on social media.
As of Dec. 17, however, it looked as if the Kremlin would ride out the Navalny poisoning largely unscathed. Putin, in his four-hour Direct Line press conference (37,000 word transcript), showed no signs of his rumored Parkinson’s disease as he declared that “ensuring national stability and development” may require another term in 2024.
Direct Line offered a friendly platform to reject the call for an investigation of the Navalny poisoning as Putin asked rhetorically: “Who cares about him, anyway?” Continuing his avoidance of Navalny’s name, Putin issued no direct denial of Kremlin involvement in the poisoning of the “Berlin patient.” Putin shrugged off the exhaustive Dec. 15 investigative report that placed FSB’s assassins at the scene of the poisoning operation. According to Putin, no big deal. The FSB must keep track of troublemakers like the “Berlin patient,” who clearly “have the support of the (U.S.) special services.” This fake assassination is “a trick to attack our people at the top,” he claimed.
Unbeknownst to Putin, three days earlier, the “Berlin patient” waked purported assassination-team member, Konstantin Kudryavtsev (“Konstantin”), with a 7 a.m. telephone call using a fake FSB caller-ID. Navalny, playing a harried assistant, informed Konstantin ominously that the director of the National Security Council that manages the FSB, Nikolai Platonovich Patrushev, was demanding a report on why the operation failed. Navalny’s subtle message to Konstantin: Heads are going to roll… Here is your chance to protect yourself; stop worrying that the call is not on a secure line.
By cajoling, pleading, and calling for understanding, Navalny kept his would-be assassin on the line for 49 minutes as Konstantin loosened up on what “went wrong” with the operation: Navalny’s plane landed too soon; just a little longer (chut’ dol’she) and he would have been dead. The paramedics were not clued in. They injected him with a life-saving antidote. The Novichek dose was correctly calculated, but there are “many nuances” in such an operation.
Konstantin’s most telling revelation: The squad laced the poison into the seams of Navalny’s blue underpants.
As the squad’s chemical weapons specialist, Konstantin’s job was to remove any traces of poison from Navalny’s underwear confiscated at the Omsk hospital.
Navalny made a videotape of his conversation with Konstantin. It shows his supporters listening tensely and exchanging virtual thumbs-up as they realized that Navalny had recorded a confession from his own intended assassin.
Navalny delayed release of the recording until after Putin’s Direct Line marathon. Navalny’s YouTube video went viral, attracting over a million viewers within hours. The Kremlin was caught flatfooted with Putin’s spokesperson sputtering that there was no poisoning, the “Berlin patient” suffers from megalomania, and remember that the FSB protects the Russian people from terrorism. As to the assassination team, a CNN reporter banged on the door of a squad member demanding interviews. Crowds formed outside Konstantin’s apartment building. Arrests were made for disturbing the peace. Demonstrators stood on Moscow street corners holding blue underwear.
While Kremlin media ignored the circus atmosphere, Russian social media erupted in salvos of satire, sarcasm, and political hilarity, centering mainly on the “Berlin patient’s” blue underwear.
Here are some samples circulating on Russian social media:
That Navalny must be very important. The FSB itself dry cleans his underwear.
A conversation in Moscow:
Where do you work?
In the FSB.
The Department of Underwear.
They say that every morning before Putin puts on fresh underpants, he gives them to his guards to wear first.
Switching out jars of urine, washing other people’s panties. The FSB still has many “wet” cases ahead. The whole world should tremble and fear!
In Russia, the old police saying “You should report to us after you have been murdered” has become: “After you have been murdered, you should solve the case yourself.”
A meeting of the national security council in the Kremlin:
Security advisor: We need an order to investigate Navalny’s underpants.
Putin: I agree. The matter of Navalny’s underpants is national security issue number one.
Prior to the underwear fiasco, the Kremlin had successfully marginalized Navalny by depicting him as crooked, as a Western agent, a blowhard, swindler, publicity fanatic, and a generally disruptive figure. Navalny’s attempted poisoning has brought him out of the shadows. Some 80 percent of Russians have heard about the Navalny poisoning, although it has been ignored by Kremlin media. His approval rating has risen from 9 to 20 percent, and he is now Russia’s fourth most respected figure.
Russian pollsters divide the Russian population into “dependent” on the regime — pensioners, state employees, military — and “independent” of the state. The first group tends to be elderly and obtains news through the nightly TV broadcast. They constitute the core of Putin’s supporters. The “independent” are younger and get their information from social media.
Public opinion polls taken after Navalny’s poisoning show the huge cleft between Russia’s “young” and “old:” Two thirds of the “old” accept the Kremlin’s narrative that the poisoning was either staged or carried out by Western intelligence. More than half of the “young” believe that the poisoning was to remove a political opponent or ordered by some corrupt official or oligarch.
The Putin regime differs dramatically from China in its tolerance of criticism. The Kremlin allows low-circulation outlets, the best-known being TV-Rain and Ekho Moskvy. Social media is largely left alone. As long as the small opposition media do not exceed certain limits or encroach on Putin’s core supporters, they will not be silenced. So far, news of the Navalny poisoning has not eroded support of Russia’s “old” media consumers.
As ex-KGB, Putin knows that his predecessor, Joseph Stalin, would have punished jokes that made fun of him and his regime with the Gulag or execution. So far, Putin has tolerated social-media merry-making at his expense, but can he allow his ultimate “power ministry” — the FSB — to be portrayed as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight?
Sergey Guriev, a seasoned observer of the Russian scene, maintains that the Navalny poisoning should remove any last doubts about the Kremlin’s routine use of political murder as an instrument of state policy. Navalny was scheduled to follow Boris Nemtsov, Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, and many others to their early graves. Prior to Navalny, Putin and his Kremlin allies could always blame sinister false flag operations, lone mavericks, or ethnic gangs for these murders. With an exposed assassination squad, aided by military weapons labs and transportation coordinated by transport police, it would strain credulity to argue that the Navalny poisoning was not an operation of the Kremlin itself.
No problem for Putin as long as his base of elderlies and his billionaire oligarchs stick with him.
So far, two thirds of his supporters seem to accept his bizarre narrative that the Navalny poisoning never occurred or, if it did, was carried out by the CIA.
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.