Putin, Navalny and… someone else

Many political pundits have jumped to the conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin is behind the poisoning of well-known opposition activist Alexei Navalny. However, as many other factors indicate, it seems unlikely that the easiest answer is the truth.

The Charite Hospital in Berlin
Russian authorities insist that the poisoning is a hoax orchestrated by Alexey Navalny and his team – but if so, why would the doctors of the Charite Hospital play along? © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • There are many irregularities in the Navalny assassination attempt
  • The Russian authorities’ version lacks credibility
  • So does the theory incriminating President Putin

To look for a credible explanation for the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny is to enter a labyrinth. You follow one hypothesis only to find yourself at a dead end, then you have to backtrack and look for a negotiable road. At the center, someone lies in waiting. As of now, it is not yet clear who. But finding a nice creature inside a maze is highly unlikely. 

There exists a version that claims there was no poisoning, or that the incident was not an assassination attempt – the events were part misunderstanding, part hoax staged by Mr. Navalny himself and a group of his associates.

While this theory was presented on several Russian propaganda talk shows, it is hard to take it seriously. Would the German doctors of the reputable Charité Hospital so willingly take part in such a con? 

The case does feature several noteworthy irregularities, but public opinion has already coalesced. It is now widely believed that Mr. Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt, and that the Kremlin is responsible. This analysis will deal solely with the political aspects of the situations. The abovementioned unresolved circumstances surrounding the incident mostly pertain to narrow fields like biochemistry and neurology, and they will not necessarily be clarified. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Olof Palme or Patrice Lumumba still hold many mysteries, but this did not prevent them from playing a key political role in the history of their country. 

One-man impasse

There is one dead end into which the majority of analysts have rushed (and become trapped). It revolves around the idea that Russia is ruled by a cruel but unitary and highly effective political regime, tightly managed top-down from a single center. This would imply that everything in the country happens at President Vladimir Putin’s orders, and that he is responsible for every political development. (This is true in one sense: an autocrat – if President Putin qualifies as one – is morally responsible for what goes on, because he refuses to share power with anyone else. But from any other standpoint, this is a blatantly mistaken assumption.)

The Russian political regime, despite its self-proclaimed monolithic veneer, is actually far from consolidated. The political arena is a battle between various actors. President Putin, though very powerful, is merely the first among equals. These fights are mostly happening out of the spotlight, which is why many believe that the Kremlin is pulling all the strings. The Navalny case, among other events, thoroughly undermines this vision.

There is no trigger that could spark Belarus-like protests with Mr. Navalny at the helm.

To believe that Mr. Putin was behind the murder also entails accepting the following:

  • The Russian president has ordered the assassination at a moment when no visible threats to his authority seem to exist. Presidential elections will only take place in four years. There is no trigger that could spark Belarus-like protests with Mr. Navalny at the helm;
  • President Putin has decided to act when Mr. Navalny’s popularity has undeniably stalled. The activist has not succeeded in consolidating the Russian opposition. His follower base (which counts several hundred thousand to nearly two million voters, depending on estimates) does not seem to be expanding. The corruption investigations that made him famous are no longer sensational; they have become routine, especially since the elite take them in stride with Olympian serenity. Recent regional protests, like in Khabarovsk, bear no relation to him whatsoever. His team did not make any headway in regional elections this September. He did not attempt to oppose the recent constitutional amendments; he unexpectedly said that Russia’s constitution is “crap” and that there is therefore no need to protect it.
  • To wipe out Mr. Navalny, the omnipotent Russian special services have resorted to the fearful Novichok nerve agent – a signature Russian poison since the Salisbury attack. The perpetrators are still blissfully unaware that the chemical can be traced and that several other, simpler and more effective murder methods exist;

Then the deadly Novichok fails to kill its target. (In fact, the nerve agent most often fails to kill: first Sergei Skripal and his daughter, then Emilian Gebrev with his son and employee, and now Mr. Navalny and fellow travelers.) The omnipotent Russian special services fail at preventing Mr. Navalny from receiving first aid and then being evacuated to Germany, and this on their own turf deep inside Siberia. Various officials and branches of the regime, including President Putin himself, panic and communicate mutually exclusive explanations of varying degrees of lunacy.

If all of the above is true, then Russia is ruled by a clinically insane regime. Seeking an explanation from political analysts is useless; better turn to psychiatrists. This absurd tableau is no more believable than the idea of an anti-Russian conspiracy among the Charite hospital physicians.

View of Spasskaya Tower
The Russian regime is more fragmented that many Western analysts believe – as the Russian saying goes, the Kremlin has many towers. © Getty Images

Step by step

To move further inside the labyrinth, we have to recall that the only plausible explanation for the latest developments in Russian politics is the start of a process that will end with Mr. Putin’s departure from power in the near future. This process began in January of this year, but was halted in the spring because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, players vested in this or that outcome had already assumed a state of extreme readiness. 

When on a bicycle, you can only stand still for so long. It is only logical that some of the involved would have been tempted to give the pedals a push or two to destabilize President Putin and goad him into reactivating the process. 

The author of the idea was likely not expecting immediate results.

Everyone knows that the Russian president is not easy to rouse. The author of the idea was likely not expecting immediate results. The Navalny poisoning did not trigger mass protests in Russia. The West, beleaguered by its own problems, has not reacted unanimously. The perpetrator is perhaps reconciled with a step-by-step approach. There is a Russian folktale about a simpleton who cuts off his dog’s tail little by little, wishing to spare the animal the pain of chopping it off in one blow. But the creature at the center of the maze is not necessarily stupid – maybe it wants to make its victim suffer.

Pain inevitably becomes impossible to bear past a given point. President Putin (who already had problems of his own) has been cut. Meanwhile, the political transformation that began before the pandemic is back on track. The president and official media constantly tout the importance of the constitutional amendments, which are meant “to secure the fundamental foundations of the country’s sustainable development for future decades.” 

Why Navalny?

The next logical question is the choice of victim. Why was the opposition activist targeted to spur on Russian politics? It is perhaps better not to wonder about other possibilities, some of which could be more horrifying. As for the choice of the personalized attack on Mr. Navalny, two options seem possible.

Someone could have decided to not only kickstart the process of political transformation, but also to prevent another player from participating in the game. This means the creature in the labyrinth considered Mr. Navalny to be a chess piece of importance, whose political ability has yet to develop, and who therefore poses a threat to the perpetrator. That is noteworthy in and of itself.

On the other hand, the end goal could have been the victim’s triumphant return to the Russian political scene under a new, more powerful guise – that of the world-famous sacrificial figure. This was the case with Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko after his poisoning in 2004 – no one knows by whom and by what. Many Russian experts, both regime loyalists and opposition commentators, believe this is the case.

Will Mr. Navalny encounter an assortment of unexpected new enemies?

Novichok’s unpredictable nature makes it difficult to gauge the outcome pursued by the attacker. Mr. Navalny could have survived, or he could have died. He could have bounced back rapidly (and he does seem to be on the mend), but he could have also remained in a vegetative state. It appears the author of the stratagem would have been satisfied with any of these options – anything except the preceding inertia. 

This is still insufficient to confidently identify who hides inside the labyrinth. It is not necessarily Mr. Putin himself, or a member of the siloviki coterie. The Russian political regime is so fragmented that no single player has a monopoly on legitimized (let alone non-legitimized) violence. Mr. Navalny’s further actions, as well as those of other characters in the drama, will make many things clearer. In particular, will Mr. Navalny encounter an assortment of unexpected new enemies? Or new allies, still more unexpected?

It is far from certain that the perpetrator of the Navalny assassination attempt will be the ultimate beneficiary of Russia’s current political transformation. But, ultimately, it does not matter what kind of creature dwells in the maze. What matters is who makes it out of there alive.

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