- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Kremlin may be brushing off allegations that it poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but U.S. sources say the case fits a pattern of targeted killings and assassination attempts against figures who challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule — and may be a sign of unease in the Kremlin.

While Mr. Putin may appear to have unassailable power — having recently pushed through constitutional changes that could keep him in the presidency for at least another decade — analysts say he is showing new levels of concern about critics and challenges to his authority.

Moscow has been caught off guard by the pro-democracy protests shaking the nearby former Soviet republic of Belarus, determined not to let such protests be emulated soon in Russia.

Protests in Russia’s far eastern lands after the sacking of a popular governor have also shown surprising staying power this summer, and demonstrators have taken up the cause of Belarus in recent days.

Enter the case of Mr. Navalny, a Russian politician and anti-corruption activist who had a central organizing role the last time demonstrations rocked Moscow in 2012 and who today is viewed to be among Mr. Putin’s fiercest domestic critics.

A week ago, the otherwise healthy Mr. Navalny fell mysteriously into a coma while traveling on a flight form Siberia to Moscow. His supporters have since claimed someone slipped him poisoned tea, and his family has scrambled to get his comatose body transferred out of Russia to Germany, where doctors have determined that the coma was likely brought on by a weaponized nerve agent.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have called for an investigation into the apparent assassination attempt against a prominent Putin critic.

“The question is who did it, and the answer is we just don’t know,” said Donald Jensen, head of the Russia and Strategic Stability project at the United States Institute of Peace.

“The majority of my friends in Moscow say they do not think Putin ordered this, but the regime is responsible for condoning this type of behavior and closing ranks to protect whoever did it,” Mr. Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat and longtime specialist on Russian domestic politics, told The Washington Times.

Other analysts say what matters is that Mr. Navalny was targeted, period.

“One thing is clear: He has risen in recent years as the strongest voice of opposition against Putin and his regime, and the pattern we’ve seen is whenever anyone rises to such a position they eventually get hurt or killed,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a Washington Institute fellow focused on Russia.

Ms. Borshchevskaya pointed to a host of other cases from recent years, including those of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician shot to death by an unknown assailant in Moscow in 2015; Vladimir Kara-Murza, Mr. Nemtsov’s protege who survived a suspected poisoning that year and again in 2017; and Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who wrote critically of Mr. Putin and the Russian intelligence services and was shot in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow in 2006.

She also noted the cases of Alexander Litvinenko, a British-naturalized Russian defector and Russian FSB secret service officer who died in 2006 from poisoning in London; and Sergei Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer turned double agent for British intelligence who survived a 2018 poisoning attempt in Britain.

With the Navalny case now garnering global attention, the Putin government says there is no proof that the 44-year-old opposition leader was the victim of a deliberate poisoning. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that accusations of government involvement “absolutely cannot be true and are rather an empty noise.”

Mr. Pompeo said the Trump administration is “deeply concerned” about the case. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, on an unrelated visit to Moscow aimed improving strained U.S.-Russian ties, was meeting Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed in a statement after the meeting that Mr. Biegun warned that the Trump administration could take aggressive retributive action if Mr. Navalny is found to have been targeted.

A question of timing

Pinning blame on Russian operatives for the Navalny poisoning will be easier than proving Kremlin culpability, said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA officer and Moscow station chief who writes an occasional column for The Washington Times.

“There may not be proof 100% they did it, but they did do it,” Mr. Hoffman said in an interview Wednesday. He said the more vital question may be why the alleged poisoning occurred when it did.

“The timing matters,” he said, asserting that Mr. Putin is “nervous” about a range of things, including his sinking popularity amid the country’s struggling economy and messy COVID-19 response, which have coincided with the protests in Belarus.

“The No. 1 thing here is Belarus,” said Mr. Hoffman, referring to large-scale demonstrations demanding the ouster of longtime Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko over allegations that he rigged that country’s Aug. 9 election.

“The last thing Putin wants is a popular uprising on his border. The protests in Minsk may not necessarily be anti-Russian, but they are anti-dictator, and that makes Putin nervous,” said Mr. Hoffman. He added that the Kremlin was already on edge with the unrest this summer in Russia’s far eastern city of Khabarovsk.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets there to protest Moscow’s arrest of the region’s governor, Sergei Furgal, on charges of involvement in several killings of businessmen in 2004 and 2005. Mr. Furgal has denied the charges, and his supporters say the case is an example of Putin-backed authoritarian overreach.

Ms. Borshchevskaya said the Khabarovsk and Belarus protests have “unnerved Putin,” who may have moved to silence Mr. Navalny out of fear that the opposition leader is one of very few in Russia capable of leading similar demonstrations there.

“Above all, Putin fears domestic protest, and a genuine opposition could inspire the Russian citizens to such a protest,” she said.

“Navalny’s voice had helped spark the largest protests in post-Soviet history, in late 2011-early 2012,” Ms. Borshchevskaya said. “Back then, even the organizers of the protests didn’t expect them to turn out so massive, and many Russia watchers thought there was a good chance Putin might fall.”

Intrigue in Moscow

Determining who ordered and carried out the Navalny poisoning may be impossible. Some analysts caution against lumping past cases involving the alleged targeting of Russian opposition figures with incidents that have involved former Russian military or intelligence operatives.

Mr. Jensen said the various incidents that have created global headlines in the Putin era have had nuanced differences that matter when trying to figure out who carried out a given poisoning or assassination attempt.

The Litvinenko and Skripal poisonings stand apart from other cases because they involved poisoning that “fit with the Russian intelligence service modus operandi,” he said.

“It’s generally the case where the regime seems to poison traitors, not opponents, and no one would call Navalny a ‘traitor.’ He is a patriot who just doesn’t like the Kremlin,” Mr. Jensen said. The Kremlin typically steers clear of so obviously targeting domestic political opponents out of concern over potential blowback.

He said Mr. Navalny may well have been targeted without Kremlin involvement by people within the Russian intelligence community and that such people could have had various motivations. On one hand, they may have sought to win recognition from the Kremlin. On another, they may have acted on the feeling that the Putin government itself wasn’t doing enough to silence a key opposition player at a sensitive moment.

Ms. Borshchevskaya said there are times when the Kremlin will take action against internal opponents, even when such action might trigger sharp domestic or international condemnation.

“Some might ask, ‘Wouldn’t it be worse in the current situation to attempt to murder a critic?’ But that’s a Western question. It shows a misunderstanding of what type of regime operates in the Kremlin,” Ms. Borshchevskaya said. “To them, silencing opposition matters more.”

Mr. Hoffman said he believes it is conceivable that Mr. Putin had a personal role in ordering the Navalny poisoning, with one eye on the fate of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

“What he may be doing, at this sensitive moment of protests and economic struggle, is showing that: ‘I am in charge, and if you mess with me, this is what’s going to happen,’” Mr. Hoffman said. “He may be saying to his own inner circle: ‘There will be no internal opposition that rises up. There will be no Boris Yeltsin here. Things are bad, but do not speak out against me or I’ll kill you.’”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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