Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is apparently fighting for his life in a Siberian hospital after being suddenly taken ill on a flight from Tomsk yesterday. Those close to him say that he was poisoned, most probably through tea that he drank before boarding the plane.
Opposition in Russia is a dangerous business. Many critics of president Vladimir Putin have gone to an early grave, often with poison involved. Investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in her apartment block in 2006 after a previous unsuccessful attempt to poison her. Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium in London later the same year. Boris Nemtsov was shot in the back on a bridge in Moscow in 2015. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, survived an attempted poisoning in Salisbury in 2018, now the subject of a mini-series.
They are merely the most famous. As far back as 2007 I was able to compile a list of 14 apparent murders of journalists under Putin’s rule. And for every dead journalist or activist, many others have been silenced or driven into exile.
It may be only coincidence – but if so it is a striking one – that the attack on Navalny came on the 80th anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky, probably the most famous case of a Russian government reaching out to silence a critic even on the other side of the world.
Stalin, of course, made no great secret of his responsibility for Trotsky’s death; the very brazenness of it was intended to work as a deterrent. Putin is more discreet; his spokesman wished Navalny a speedy recovery and even suggested that consideration would be given to allowing him to travel to the west for treatment.
Nonetheless, there is something of the same demonstrative lack of concern for world opinion. Although it will probably never be known just how many of the suspicious deaths have been ordered by Putin personally, no-one really thinks that he is ignorant of what is going on or that he has any interest in bringing actual perpetrators to justice.
This morning’s Reuters report notes that the Kremlin “denies settling scores with its foes by murdering them,” and quotes Navalny himself saying that his death “wouldn’t be beneficial for Putin” because it would make him into a martyr. But the sad truth is that the calculation from Putin’s position looks quite different.
Whether killings take place as a result of express orders, or by independent action from people in the security services who believe they have a green light from Moscow, the government benefits by the removal of critics and the intimidation of those who remain. A popular cause needs martyrs, but it also needs living leaders. If Navalny is removed from the scene, anyone thinking of stepping up to replace him will know the risk they are taking.
The other coincidence, if that is what it is, is with the current crisis in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko is making a determined effort to cling to power. I suggested the other day that armed Russian intervention to support him was unlikely, and that Putin would probably prefer to play a waiting game.
Several experts have endorsed that view. But it’s possible that yesterday’s affair in Siberia is a form of non-military assistance. Whether intentionally or not, it is sending a message that inaction on Putin’s part should not be mistaken for a lack of ruthlessness, and that standing up to autocrats can have deadly consequences.