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Putin demonstrates his ruthlessness — and America should pay attention

Putin demonstrates his ruthlessness — and America should pay attention
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Last week, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was the victim of a suspected poisoning on a flight to Moscow from Siberia, which left him unconscious and in intensive care. Navalny, who rose to prominence during the 2011-2012 Russian presidential election, has a significant social media following, including roughly 2 million Twitter followers and 4 million subscribers to his YouTube channel

Repeatedly jailed for leading an anti-corruption campaign targeting Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinMexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 Kremlin: US statements about pro-Navalny protests show 'direct support for the violation of the law' Urgent: Extend New START treaty with Russia now MORE and his closest associates, including former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Navalny was barred from running against Putin in Russia’s 2018 presidential election. 

Navalny reportedly consumed tea laced with a poisonous toxin at the airport and is receiving medical treatment in Germany.  

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Poison long has been a not-so-plausibly-deniable tactic for the Kremlin. The British government concluded the Kremlin was responsible for trying to assassinate former Russian military intelligence officer Sergey Skripal with a highly toxic, military-grade nerve agent Novichok in 2018. In 2006, Putin’s henchmen allegedly poisoned former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko with polonium 210-laced tea in a London hotel. And the KGB, where Putin spent his formative years, also has a history of using poison. In 1978, the KGB murdered Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov with an umbrella, whose tip had been laced with ricin.

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has a long record of exposing graft among Russian officials, but last month it shut down because of a financially ruinous lawsuit from Yevgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” who is infamous for being the chief financier of the Internet Research Agency, a troll group that created a wide network of fake U.S. activist groups and personas to operate in our social media. 

If the Kremlin really is behind Navalny’s poisoning, then three recent developments might explain Putin’s motivation.  

First, Russia’s neighbor Belarus has been convulsed with mass protests and a ruthless police crackdown, following President Alexander Lukashenko’s election landslide, in which he reportedly encouraged massive voter fraud. Lukashenko accused Navalny, without evidence, of organizing protests against his reelection for a sixth term. 

Cognizant of Lukashenko’s vulnerability, Putin has been reticent about committing Russian security forces to support Lukashenko’s crackdown on internal dissent. But that does not mean Putin does not recognize how a populist uprising in Belarus could impact his own populace, because nothing scares Putin more than a neighboring state with a sizable Russian-speaking population striving for democracy. The last thing Putin needs is a populist beacon of hope and inspiration for Putin’s domestic opponents, who are denied civil liberties.

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Prior to the poisoning, Navalny posted videos on YouTube in support of the Belarusian protests. He wrote that the “revolution” in Belarus would occur soon in Russia. 

Second, for months, Putin has been dealing with protests in Siberia — most ominously for the Kremlin, in Khabarovsk — over Putin’s removal of popular governor Sergey Furgal. Throughout Russia, Navalny operated campaign offices that supported opposition candidates in regional elections. Last weekend, protesters carried posters that read, “Belarus, Khabarovsk is with you,” in support of opposition rallies against Lukashenko’s rigged election.  

Third, Putin’s approval rating reportedly has dropped to 60 percent over public frustration about COVID-19, an economic recession, and Russia’s ubiquitous corruption. Navalny has demonstrated the capability to mobilize citizens in protest and electoral candidates against the Kremlin, which is particularly concerning to Putin in light of the upcoming 2021 Russian parliamentary elections. Navalny effectively campaigned against the July 1 vote on constitutional amendments, which he called a “coup” and “violation of the constitution,” because Putin essentially was made president for life.

At this point, Putin’s drop in popularity, Belarus’s instability, and political protests in Siberia do not together constitute an existential threat to Putin’s autocratic regime. But they were of enough concern that Putin likely needed to demonstrate, most especially to his own coterie, that he will deploy the most ruthless measures to remain in power. Failure to do so would run the risk of encouraging and empowering an insider threat, as Boris Yeltsin was to Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Kremlin’s poisoning of Navalny is an admonition as well for the U.S., which remains in Putin’s crosshairs as we near the 2020 presidential election. If Putin felt vulnerable enough to poison Navalny, then we should expect him to increase the intensity of his attacks on our democracy — even at the risk of greater conflict between our nations. Now is the ideal opportunity to express solidarity with Navalny, while emphasizing our continued readiness to defend, deter and counter Russia’s nefarious interference in our domestic politics. 

Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.