Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is lying unconscious in a Berlin hospital, the apparent victim of a poisoning attack. Photo: AFP/Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency

In the wake of the apparent poisoning of Russia’s leading opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, many fingers are pointing at Russian President Vladimir Putin as the culprit.

As a long list of Kremlin’s critics have fallen victim to similar attacks under the rule of Putin, who is famously an ex-KGB operative, the accusations are hardly surprising.

But given the far from monolithic nature of the Kremlin’s ruling circle; given the range of dangerous, pro-Putin power players at large in the Russian Federation; and given the many enemies Navalny had cultivated; the reality is likely more nuanced. 

What Navalny’s case – and those of other anti-Putin activists – does, however, make clear, are the extreme risks facing opposition figures in today’s Russia.

Toxic attack, minimal response

After falling violently ill during an internal flight on 20 August, the Yale-educated Navalny, who heads the Russia of the Future party, was urgently hospitalized in the Siberian city of Omsk. Four days later, he was evacuated to a specialized Berlin hospital by a German NGO.

There, he currently lies in an induced coma. His condition is stable, though still severe. 

According to German doctors, Navalny, 44, was poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor, a chemical used in medicines, insecticides and nerve agents.

Russian authorities have not acknowledged the accuracy of the diagnosis. Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, called the Berlin doctors’ statements “hasty.”

“We don’t understand why our German colleagues are in such a hurry,” he said. “The substance hasn’t yet been established.”

On Sunday, according to German media reports, Russian prosecutors asked German authorities to provide information on the case.

Despite Navalny’s high profile across Russia and despite demands from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, the Kremlin, for days, resisted calls for a probe. Then, possibly due to ongoing international pressure, the Kremlin called for “a thorough and objective investigation.”

Even so, according to a statement from the Russian General Prosecutor the following day, “There are no reasons for opening a criminal case.” 

Navalny’s close allies have opened fire on the Kremlin. They accuse authorities of orchestrating the attack and obstructing Navalny’s evacuation to Germany in order to hide the traces left by the poison.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin openly blamed Putin. The Kremlin defined the allegations as “empty noise.” “We cannot take the accusations you have voiced seriously,” was Peskov’s response.

The perils of anti-Putinism

Navalny joins a long list of Kremlin critics who have been victims of assassinations and assassination attempts during Putin’s rule. 

Independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning attempt on an internal flight in 2004. Among the harshest critics of Putin’s close crony Ramzan Kadyrov, who heads the Chechen Republic, she was shot dead on Putin’s birthday in 2006 in the lift of her apartment building.

Though several suspects were tried and imprisoned in the case, the mastermind was never identified. 

Opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza survived two alleged poisonings in 2015 and 2017. 

Former Russian spies who defected have also met dire fates.

In 2006, ex-intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko died in London after being poisoned with a radioactive isotope. He had accused Putin of being behind Politkovskaya’s death.

Ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia barely survived a poisoning in the British town of Salisbury in 2018. According to British authorities and independent media, Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, was behind the attack.

The weapon used was Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent. 

Shutting up Navalny

As Russia’s leading opposition figure, Navalny was certainly a thorn in Putin’s side. His Anti-Corruption Fund uncovered a number of corruption cases involving top Russian officials and oligarchs close to the Kremlin and he enjoys a massive following on YouTube.

Perhaps more importantly, he is the only opposition leader who has proved capable of organizing mass protests all across the country. And in Moscow City Hall’s election last year, Navalny’s “Smart Vote” system led to the defeat of a number of candidates from Putin’s ruling party, United Russia. 

According to Russian media outlet Proekt, significant resources have been invested by Russian authorities to neutralize Navalny, whose movements are allegedly constantly monitored by the FSB – Russia’s powerful internal secret service – and other state agencies. 

Even so, analysts doubt that the Kremlin specifically ordered a hit on Navalny.

Most agree that killing Navalny would turn him into a martyr – which would likely strengthen opposition.

While Putin remains powerful and popular, of late, his support has been dwindling due to both perceived mis-management of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a stagnating economy. Mass protests in neighboring Belarus also offer Russians a possible model for their own protests, which may spook Kremlin power players.

Assassination would be an extreme tactic.

Traditionally, the Kremlin has been using other means to keep Navalny in check – linking him to various illegalities, resulting in multiple jail sentences, barring him from taking part in elections and targeting him with propaganda messaging. 

Navalny is also facing fierce legal challenges from some of the powerful targets of his anti-corruption probes.

“The Kremlin strategy has been discrediting Navalny, while avoiding radical measures which could trigger public outrage,” explains Mikhail Rubin, deputy editor-in-chief at Proekt.

“If Putin gave the order, that would represent a drastic change in the Kremlin’s approach to Navalny,” he added.

‘Regime guard dogs’ 

But while Putin is unlikely to have ordered the poisoning, an atmosphere of impunity fostered under his governance for those who rid the country of problematic, anti-Kremlin figures, may well have enabled it. This is why many will take the government’s call for a “thorough and objective” investigation with a pinch of salt.

In 2017, a radical pro-Kremlin activist sprayed Navalny’s face with a chemical dye, as a result of which he lost sight in one eye. And last year, the politician suffered symptoms of poisoning while serving a short prison sentence for organizing unsanctioned protests.

No one was convicted in either case. 

It is widely rumored that the Kremlin has at its disposal a range of quasi-state and non-state actors to carry out deniable “dirty work.” 

And some of these actors have also been targeted in Navalny’s anti-corruption probes, suggesting that the poisoner could be seeking deadly revenge. 

One is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to the Kremlin, who is sanctioned by the US for orchestrating a disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the 2016 US elections.

Prigozhin, it is believed, also directs Wagner, a well-resourced but shadowy private military company. Wagner has been unofficially advancing the Kremlin’s interests in multiple conflict zones, from Syria to Libya to Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R Politik, defines figures like Prigozhin as “regime guard dogs.”

These figures provide “services” to the Kremlin, which can deny any involvement, she said. In exchange, the Kremlin guarantees them immunity.

However, the degree of control with which the Kremlin manages these figures seems to be loose at best. 

“This time, it possible that some of these figures got out of control,” Rubin told Asia Times. If Rubin is correct, it wouldn’t be the first time. 

Boris Nemtsov, another leading opposition leader, was gunned down on a bridge right next to the Kremlin in 2015. According to sources close to the Kremlin, Putin was visibly stunned by the killing.

Yet while the actual executioners were convicted, Russian courts declined to follow the trail up to the mastermind. That trail allegedly led to the entourage of Chechen leader and Putin associate, Ramzan Kadyrov. 

Regardless of who the culprit was – and prior experience suggests that one will not be identified via a clear and impartial judicial investigation – Navalny’s misfortune points once again to the perils implicit in opposition politics and anti-Kremlin activism.

It also suggests dangerous dysfunctionality in the Kremlin’s informal power structures, under which different groups take lethal initiatives without clear direction, on the understanding that they will likely enjoy immunity from judicial investigation.