Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critic is lying in a coma in a Siberian hospital from a suspected poisoning — and his family and supporters allege Putin and his government are behind it.
They have good reason to suspect that. The Kremlin has a long, sordid history of poisoning political dissidents, defectors, and other enemies of the state. Indeed, this is actually the second time Navalny — the leader of Russia’s splintered opposition — is suspected of having been poisoned in just a little over a year.
On Thursday, Navalny drank some tea at a Siberian airport before boarding a flight to Moscow. He became ill on the aircraft, with a video purportedly showing the politician moaning and needing immediate medical attention.
The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, near Kazakhstan, where an ambulance waited to take him to a local hospital. But Navalny’s condition worsened, and he fell into a coma before he arrived at the facility.
Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1, where Navalny is currently being treated, has since become the site of a frustrating standoff between Navalny’s family and supporters and the doctors overseeing his care. Navalny’s wife and supporters allege the doctors are controlled by the Kremlin and trying to cover up the poisoning attack instead of properly treating their patient.
The physicians say Navalny wasn’t poisoned but instead suffers from a “metabolic disorder” that leads to low blood sugar. “Poisons or traces of their presence in the body have not been identified,” Anatoly Kalinichenko, the deputy chief doctor at the Omsk emergency hospital, told reporters on Friday. “The diagnosis of ‘poisoning’ remains somewhere in the back of our minds, but we do not believe that the patient suffered poisoning.”
But Navalny’s team — including his wife Yulia Navalnaya, who has so far been barred from seeing her husband in the hospital, according to a spokesperson — still suspects foul play. “The medics are being totally commanded by the FSB and hardly release anything,” Vladimir Milov, a close Navalny associate, told me, using the acronym for Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB responsible for internal security, among other things.
“We of course cannot trust this hospital and we demand for Alexei to be given to us, so that we could have him treated in an independent hospital whose doctors we trust,” Navalnaya said in another press conference Friday.
A medical plane sent by the Berlin-based humanitarian group Cinema for Peace Foundation arrived in Omsk on Friday to take the opposition leader to Germany for treatment. The Russian doctors initially blocked the transfer, saying Navalny wasn’t stable enough to travel, before finally allowing the German physicians to take a look at the patient’s condition.
The hope now is that the hospital will soon approve the transfer so Navalny can get the care he clearly needs. The German doctors said he’s stable enough to travel, but the Russian doctors for the moment disagree, according to a statement by the foundation.
Hanging over all the drama, though, are two pressing questions: Was Navalny actually poisoned? And if so, did Putin have anything to do it?
As of right now, we don’t have definitive answers to those questions — and we may never get them.
Turns out, that may be exactly the point.
Why Putin may be responsible for Navalny’s coma
Ask people familiar with how the Russian government handles dissidents, and they unanimously note that what likely happened to Navalny is part of a long-standing Russian government playbook — one that Putin follows.
“Killing or intimidating ‘enemies of the people’ has been a staple of Kremlin policy for over 100 years,” said John Sipher, who ran CIA operations in Russia during his 28-year intelligence career before retiring six years ago.
“Putin has continued this tactic of killing his enemies at home and abroad, and has created a system where those who wish to earn the Kremlin’s support need to do [his] bidding,” Sipher said. “Whether or not Putin personally ordered the poisoning, he is behind any and all efforts to maintain control through intimidation and murder.”
Poisoning people is kind of the Kremlin’s thing. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko campaigned against a Putin ally for the presidency of Ukraine. But then he fell ill, with his face mysteriously and suddenly blotchy and the left side paralyzed. He also suffered immense abdominal and back pain. He said he had been poisoned — with dioxin, a toxic chemical, no less — but Russian officials have long denied having anything to do with what happened to him. (Oh, and Yushchenko ended up winning the presidency.)
In 2006, two Russian agents put polonium-210 — a highly radioactive chemical — in former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko’s tea at a London hotel bar (he had defected to the UK). It took weeks for Litvinenko to die, and he blamed Putin for orchestrating the attack.
“You may succeed in silencing one man,” Litvinenko said from his hospital bed, “but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.” Russia continues to deny any involvement in Litvinenko’s death.
In 2018, the UK determined that Russian operatives poisoned a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain with Novichok, one of the world’s most lethal nerve agents (that just so happens to have been developed by the Soviet Union), putting both victims in the hospital in serious condition. They both recovered from the attack and are now in an unknown location — hiding out of fear of another potential attack.
And while poison is one of the most commonly used assassination tools, the Kremlin isn’t above using more prosaic methods. Boris Nemtsov, for instance, was shot near the Kremlin in February 2015. Nemtsov had been digging up dirt on the government’s misdeeds, which may have prompted Putin allies to want him dead. A man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder, but many critics believe the whole trial was a sham and a cover-up by the president’s team.
The common thread among all of these episodes, as Sipher alluded to, is that it’s unclear just how directly Putin may or may not have been involved. Plausible deniability is baked into the cake of his authoritarian system. Everyone who works in the government knows what Putin wants without him having to explicitly ask. That means Kremlin operatives have the green light to pursue some of those goals — like knocking off a political rival — while officially keeping Putin out the loop.
That, in a sense, is how he gets what he wants without having his fingerprints on the government’s dirtiest actions.
So Putin could have ordered Navalny dead himself, but it’s equally possible that someone who wanted to make Putin happy did it on their own initiative. “Navalny has lots of enemies,” said Judy Twigg, a Russia expert at Virginia Commonwealth University.
He’s been repeatedly jailed for instigating protests against Putin and was twice attacked with an antiseptic green dye in 2017. “It looks funny but it hurts like hell,” Navalny tweeted about the attacks. And last summer, while Navalny was serving a 30-day prison sentence for leading anti-government protests, he was taken to the hospital with symptoms of facial swelling, itching, and a rash.
As the Guardian reported, doctors at the hospital said Navalny was experiencing an allergic reaction to something but didn’t say what that something was. One of Navalny’s personal doctors also examined him, though, and she said he was suffering from “the result of harmful effects of undefined chemical substances … induced by a ‘third person.’”
In other words, poison. There’s still no official proof of foul play (of course).
But beyond this very suggestive history, there are two other potential context clues that point the finger in Putin’s direction in this latest incident.
First, if the FSB is indeed putting pressure on the Omsk hospital, as the Navalny associate Milov alleges, that would imply that Putin or someone close to him cares deeply about how Navalny’s situation is handled.
Twigg told me it’s certainly possible the FSB is involved. “The FSB would surely be highly engaged in a situation where there’s contact with foreigners,” said Twigg, especially since employees of the state — which includes most Russian medical staff — must report their contacts with international visitors, such as the German doctors.
Of course, any state security officials that were may have just been following protocol by inserting themselves into a situation that would clearly garner global attention. But their suspected role in keeping the German doctors from initially seeing Navalny, if true, could mean they were trying to hide something — like, say, any evidence of poison coursing through the opposition figure’s veins.
Second, things aren’t looking too great for Putin right now. He’s overseeing one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, facing protests that question his leadership, and watching as his ally in Belarus faces nationwide calls to step down. With all that instability, Putin may have wanted to target his main political rival to send a strong message.
“This is an escalation and a sign that the regime is anxious and eager to clamp down once and for all,” Alina Polyakova, the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, told me.
If that was the plan, it’s unclear whether it will actually work. If Navalny recovers, he may have even more credibility to form a larger opposition movement against Putin as a result of the suspected attack, experts say. Instead of getting rid of his biggest political rival, Putin (or whoever might be responsible) may have just made him more powerful.
Whether or not Navalny recovers and is able to wield that power if he does is what many inside and outside Russia — and certainly many inside the Kremlin — will be waiting to see.
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