3 September 2020

The poisoning of Alexei Navalny is a sign of Putin’s self-confidence

By Sarah Hurst

Angela Merkel’s announcement yesterday that Alexei Navalny was poisoned by a substance from the Novichok family didn’t come as a big surprise. Doctors in Berlin, where the Russian opposition leader is being treated, had already said he was poisoned by a cholinesterase inhibitor, a group that includes the Novichok nerve agent used against the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018. Two weeks after Navalny collapsed on a plane flying from Tomsk to Moscow, he is still in an induced coma and on a ventilator, and doctors say they can’t make a prognosis about his future because of the severity of the poisoning.

The future of the man many believe to be behind the poisoning, Vladimir Putin, is almost certainly more promising. Western governments may have strong words for the Russian president, but we’ve been here before. Every time a Russian opposition figure is assassinated, from journalist Anna Politkovskaya to MI6 informer Alexander Litvinenko to politician Boris Nemtsov, there is a chorus of international outrage and demands for action to rein in Putin. Yet little is done, as world leaders don’t want to jeopardise their business dealings with Russia – or face more hostile acts by the Kremlin – and Putin emerges emboldened. A few months after the Salisbury attack, for instance, Russia hosted the World Cup, and opposition activist Petr Verzilov was poisoned after running onto the pitch during the final wearing a police uniform.

Only a week ago, Merkel herself said that the Navalny poisoning ought not to jeopardise the Nord Stream 2 project to build a gas pipeline from Russia to Europe. “I believe that these issues should be viewed separately,” the German Chancellor said. “I also think that the construction of Nord Stream should be finished. This is a project carried out by economic actors from Russia and Europe… I believe it would be unreasonable to link this economic initiative to the Navalny situation.”

Remember too, that Germany was also the venue for another Russian assassination in August last year, when Chechen-Georgian intelligence agent Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot dead in broad daylight in a Berlin park. The suspect, who travelled under the fake identity Vadim Sokolov, is in custody and has been transferred to an unknown prison due to an apparent threat to his life from the Russian state. Meanwhile in The Netherlands the trial of some of the suspects in the MH17 case is underway, but the defendants themselves remain in Russia. All 298 people on board the flight were killed when the plane was shot down by a Russian Buk missile in July 2014, but the Kremlin, as ever, denies any involvement.

It’s unlikely that Western democracies will respond any more strongly to Navalny’s poisoning than they did to the murders of their own citizens, or those that were committed on their own soil. Putin is still welcome at G20 meetings and Donald Trump was talking about meeting him again before the poisoning occurred.  Economic sanctions in response to the annexation of Crimea have certainly weakened the Russian economy, but Putin doesn’t care. His response has been to keep the nation on a permanent war footing, urging patriotic sacrifices and frequently arresting people for treason or espionage. Among them was dual US/UK citizen Paul Whelan, who was recently sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison for espionage after visiting Moscow for a friend’s wedding in 2018.

Western governments have also imposed an array of sanctions against individuals in Russia, and the UK has joined in with its own ‘Magnitsky sanctions’ on several figures accused of human rights abuses. But until now they have always carefully avoided sanctioning Putin himself. The Baltic states, which are most concerned about the Russia threat, have now sanctioned Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko over his rigging of the August 9 election and brutal crackdown on protesters. It is telling that they had to do this separately from the EU itself, which only took action against lower-ranking officials.

The mass protests in Belarus looked like another challenge for Putin, but he has managed to turn them into an opportunity by pushing Lukashenko into agreeing to further integration with Russia. Putin doesn’t have to send in tanks to annex Belarus: Lukashenko plans to rewrite the country’s constitution and top Kremlin officials are helping him do it.  Protesters have stopped short of storming the presidential palace in Minsk, and could eventually exhaust themselves, while again Western leaders express concern and dismay, but take little concrete action.

On the home front, Putin looks as secure as ever. He changed his own constitution earlier this year, “annulling” all his previous presidential terms, so that he is now eligible to remain in power for two more six-year terms, starting from 2024. He shrugged off protests against the blatant violations in the national vote to approve the changes – with “polling stations” consisting of officials sitting on benches outside blocks of flats – and is comfortably settling in for the long haul. With Western nations facing crises of their own, he doesn’t have to worry too much that our leaders will go out of their way to fix Russia’s problems.

If Putin does find himself in trouble, it won’t be thanks to the outside world. Navalny has established a network of campaign offices across Russia that organise and report on protests, make videos about regional corruption and support opposition candidates in elections, such as the local elections taking place on September 11-13. His office in Khabarovsk has played a major role in covering the protests that have been taking place there daily for over a month since Putin arrested the elected regional governor, Sergei Furgal. Navalny’s coordinator in the far-eastern city, Alexei Vorsin, was jailed for 10 days. Protesters now shout,  “Putin drink some tea, Khabarovsk offers free!” since Navalny was seen drinking tea before he collapsed.

Other protests over local issues take place spontaneously, such as the recent ones in Bashkiria over plans by a mining company to dig up the spectacular Kushtau mountains. Protesters there also expressed solidarity with Khabarovsk and Belarus. Rock musician Yuri Shevchuk recorded songs in support of Khabarovsk and Kushtau protesters. The head of Bashkiria met the protesters and agreed to put the mining project on hold. 

In Moscow Navalny’s aides Lyubov Sobol and Kira Yarmysh have been continuing his work, and local councillor Yulia Galyamina has been collecting signatures for a petition to cancel the changes to the constitution.

The consequences for standing up to Putin are often grim. Galyamina now faces criminal prosecution on a charge of participating in multiple unauthorised protests. Young activist Yegor Zhukov, who was jailed after protests in summer last year, has been assaulted in what was likely another state-sponsored attack. St. Petersburg photographer David Frenkel, who documents protests, had his arm broken by police at a polling station during the constitutional vote, and his car was vandalised a few days ago.

But while dissatisfaction with Putin’s rule is certainly widespread, it would be wishful thinking to suggest there is any serious challenge to his grip on power.  As Soviet rock star Viktor Tsoi sang in the hit that has become an anthem of the Belarus protests, people are waiting for changes. But the wait may yet be a long one.

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Sarah Hurst is a freelance journalist who has been writing about Russia since 1990.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.