Weekly 22 August 2020

Navalny in critical condition after suspected poisoning 

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seriously ill after being poisoned on his way home from a trip to Siberia. The poisoning appears to be deliberate. There is no suspect at the moment, but we will look at who might have the capability and motive to do such a thing.

  • Navalny was taken ill Thursday morning on board a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow. A passenger on the plane uploaded a clip of the incident on Instagram that showed Navalny unconscious. Within 20 minutes of take-off, the plane made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk. Navalny was in a coma and quickly taken to the intensive care unit of the local hospital. There, he was placed on a ventilator.
  • There are conflicting rumours about Navalny’s exact condition and doctors in Omsk said Friday that they had found no traces of poison. Instead, they said the problem was due to a metabolic disorder and a sharp drop in blood sugar levels. But Navalny does not suffer from diabetes and Navalny’s own doctor, Anastasia Vasilieva, said that this was merely identifying the symptoms, not a diagnosis. She believes he was poisoned.
  • Navalny’s friends and family want to have him transferred to a European clinic specializing in toxicology. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have both already pledged to organize treatment, and Germany’s Cinema for Peace Foundation has sent an air ambulance to Omsk. Medics in Omsk initially insisted Navalny could not be transferred, but they eventually gave way and he looked set to leave Omsk by plane in the early hours of Saturday morning.
  • Navalny’s colleagues fear the doctors in Omsk delayed his airlift under political pressure to ensure any trace of poison disappeared from his system. They also think that this is why Navalny’s wife, Yulia, was barred from seeing him for several hours.

How did the authorities react?

State-owned television channels, the way most Russians get their news, are currently reporting next to nothing about Navalny. His hospitalisation got a brief mention on early news bulletins Thursday but since then – silence. This isn’t unusual, and it suggests the TV channels were only told after a few hours that they should not be covering this story.

Officially, Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, wished Navalny a speedy recovery and promised the Kremlin would help him receive treatment abroad. But few people doubt the Kremlin also leant on the doctors to try and keep Navalny in Omsk.

Telegram channels linked to the Kremlin, which are often used to muddy the waters, were quick to start spreading theories that distanced the authorities from any involvement. They started with the ‘traditional’ claim that everything was staged by Ukrainian secret services. Later, a new rumor took hold: that Navalny had drunk heavily the day before he was taken ill, and mixed his liquor with pills (this is demonstrably false).

Who would do such a thing?

Navalny’s colleagues have no doubt he was deliberately poisoned. And it’s very hard to believe this could be an accident. Navalny has been attacked several times before: in 2017 he was sprayed with triarylmethane dye, which permanently damaged his sight. Last year, during opposition protests in Moscow, Navalny said he was poisoned when he was held in solitary confinement in prison. Nobody has been arrested, or convicted, in either case.

Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, was in the plane with him when he collapsed. She confirmed Navalny had nothing to eat or drink except a cup of tea at Tomsk airport before departure. S7, the airline that operated Navalny’s flight, said that he had nothing to eat or drink on board the plane. CCTV footage from the airport offers no additional clues.

Unlike many political attacks in Russia, there is no obvious explanation of who might want to get rid of Navalny at this moment in time. But any plausible explanation must assume the poisoning was explicitly sanctioned by the authorities or the security services, or carried out in expectation of retrospective approval.

  • Method. It’s far too difficult for a lone-wolf operator – madman or fanatic – to carry out a poisoning in which the cause does not become immediately apparent.
  • The fall-out. On the face of it, anyone targeted by Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations is a plausible perpetrator. As would a politician threatened by Navalny’s activists in an election campaign. There have also been high-profile contract killings in Russia carried out on the orders of people who do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. But in Navalny’s case, this is out of the question. His position as the country’s leading opposition figure means there is nobody in Russia who has the wherewithal to order such poisoning but lacks the political know-how to understand the damaging implications for the Kremlin.
  • Constant scrutiny. Navalny is closely monitored by the Russian security services and, during a pre-election trip to a region that is a major opposition stronghold, he would be under even closer scrutiny than usual. If the security services are in any way competent, they must have some information about the poisoning.

One of the most popular, and convincing, theories is that this was the work of a Kremlin loyalist, a person with good connections to Russia’s most powerful officials or even Putin himself. A man like Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as Putin’s chef, would fit the bill. Time-honoured Russian tradition suggests that eliminating an opponent of the regime tends to be a job carried out by an eager proxy who tries to guess the mood in the corridors of power, and win the tacit blessing of the country’s leaders (who cannot act directly for political reasons).

Why the world should care

Navalny is by far Russia’s most influential opposition leader, and represents a real and present danger to the authorities. Such a vicious attack is a significant political escalation; and yet another warning to all those who speak out against the Kremlin. If Navalny is permanently injured — or ends up dying — it will cause an outpouring of outrage and anger.