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What’s Up with Navalny?

A shorter version of this article was published by Newsmax

Russian opposition leader Andrei Navalny has become, arguably, the most recognizable domestic foe of the Kremlin’s Vladimir Putin. Following a botched assassination attempt in August 2020, Navalny’s story hit the news everywhere in the West.

He was poisoned with the Novichok agent while returning on a plane from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow.  Someone put that stuff in his water. Western cyber sleuth company Bellingcat tracked down the FSB assassination team, which left cyber evidence of its operations. Later, Navalny prank called a secret police officer who allegedly revealed the plot on the phone to the intended victim. Unless it was a provocation or another kind of triple game, the professionalism of Russia’s secret police leaves much to be desired.

Incidentally, this was not the first time that the oppositionist suffered a chemical attack. In 2017, he was sprayed with a green dye in the eyes, rendering him partially blind.

As the infamous KGB General Vasili Mitrokhin archive reveals, Moscow has had a long tradition of poisoning its foes. The Soviet secret police ran a clandestine lab, where it tested its wares with lethal results on political prisoners already in the 1930s. This sordid tradition continued during the Cold War.

The Kremlin thus dispatched a number of foes. The most prominent examples included a Ukrainian nationalist leader, who was killed with cyanide gas in Munich in 1959, and a Bulgarian dissident playwright, who was stabbed with a ricin-tipped umbrella.

The poisoning of foes continued happening after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Among the most high-profile victims, KGB and its successor FSB (or military intelligence GRU) defectors stand out: Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was dispatched with radioactive polonium in his tea in 2006, and Colonel Sergei Skripal, who was dosed, along with his daughter, with Novichok in 2017. The Skripals survived. And so did Navalny, which led Putin to deadpan that “if they wanted to kill him, they would have.”

By “they,” the Russian President of course meant his own security services. He should know. He is one of them. The current master of the Kremlin, in fact, comes from a long line of operators in the terror apparatus. His grandfather was with the Cheka, the Bolshevik’s original secret police, serving as Lenin’s cook. Putin’s father served with Stalin’s NKVD. The Russian President was himself recruited into the KGB, where he ended up in counterintelligence, la crème de la crème of the apparat.

In the Navalny poisoning case, Putin was not merely defending the FSB and dismissing its culpability, but he promoted the usual propaganda line on the secret police’s alleged omniscience and omnipotence. It works like the Borg: “Surrender, resistance is futile, we know everything, and we are capable of anything, including killing you anytime.” Including with Novichok.

On the other hand, there may be a secret police game involved after all. They did not kill Navalny because they only wanted to scare him. Or they administered a dose that was not lethal on purpose because they were protecting their asset. Remember? It is Russia, aka “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill used to say. Perhaps, however, if one knows Russia, one is open-minded enough to keep all the options open with Moscow. The attempt on Navalny could have been any of the above.

At any rate, after the poisoning, the Russian government permitted the oppositionist to be evacuated to Germany, where the doctors saved his life. From his hospital bed, Navalny publicly accused Putin of having had tried to kill him. The regime retaliated by bringing charges against him in a clear endeavor to make his departure from Russia permanent. Navalny defiantly returned home in mid-January 2021 and was promptly charged with “extremism” and arrested.

Navalny has been in and out of jail and has served time for political offenses. The Kremlin has even attempted to pin corruption charges on him in order to compromise the opposition politician.  No sooner than he found himself in a slammer, the defiant fellow divulged yet another Putin corruption scandal: an out-of-wedlock child and a U.S. $1 billion secret palace owned by the President, compliments of embezzled funds, allegedly.

Navalny’s arrest triggered mass demonstrations in a number of places in the Russian Federation, including in the Far East, where the angry fans braved -58°F weather. The riot police dispersed the crowds and took many into custody. As usual, the cops were less brutal in full view of the cameras in Moscow, than in the provinces. And the Kremlin warned social media giants to stop fomenting the protests, among young people, in particular.

Navalny’s fame stems partly from the fact that other oppositionists died under mysterious circumstances, dropped out of the game, linger in the Gulag, or were expelled from the country. Some emigrated to avoid the aforementioned. Thus, he became a top leader of the opposition by default.

Navalny certainly is not the first choice for a Western liberal media darling, but there are not too many anti-Putin Russians left standing. In the West, many folks perceive him as a liberal, perhaps even a champion of human rights. That is not exactly right.

Undoubtedly, the oppositionist is one gutsy guy who seems to enjoy stepping on Putin’s toes. However, both differ little on the paramount role of Russia in the world. For instance, essentially and implicitly, they both question Ukraine’s right to exist. Explicitly, both believe that Crimea is Russia. Further, Navalny has not exactly denounced Nordstream-2, the effort to make Germany and the EU even more Russian energy-dependent.

Thus far, Navalny’s criticism of the Russian President focuses on corruption. In fact, the most popular chant on the streets in Russia is “Putin vor!” (Putin is a wise guy/made thief). This is not exactly a denunciation of Putin for his aggressive nationalism and imperialism. One can expect Navalny to continue in the same manner, even if to the tune of liberal rhetoric to make himself more palatable internationally.

Navalny will continue to serve as a symbol of defiance. However, short of a revolution, a palace coup, or a foreign invasion, Putin is here to stay. But at least it is good to hear that some Russians know that Putin is a wise guy. We owe this one chiefly to Navalny, whether or not he is a straight-as-an-arrow Russian nationalist, or a double or triple agent. Or whoever. Anything is possible.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, D.C., 29 January 2021

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IWP course on Russian Politics and Foreign Policy