Thursday, October 8, 2020


Last month, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was discharged from the Berlin hospital where he was treated for 32 days after being poisoned with the Soviet military-grade nerve agent Novichok while on a trip to Russia’s Far East.

Swedish and French laboratories confirmed Germany’s medical assessment that Mr. Navalny was targeted with the same chemical poison that was used to target former Russian military intelligence officer Sergey Skripal in Britain in 2018.

Emphasizing that Mr. Navalny’s poisoning appeared to be the handiwork of President Vladimir Putin’s government, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was reconsidering the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a joint project directly linking Russian oil to German and West European markets.

Mr. Navalny catapulted into prominence in 2011 when he mobilized protests against Russia’s corrupt elections. He also engaged in anti-corruption investigations of Russia’s political elite — including former President Dmitry Medvedev — which proved wildly popular on social media. Mr. Navalny has millions of YouTube and Twitter followers. 

In 2013, Mr. Navalny won almost 30% of the vote when he ran for mayor of Moscow against incumbent Sergey Sobyanin, a Putin loyalist, in yet another election marked by fraud. Russia’s Central Electoral Commission barred Mr. Navalny from running for president in 2018 based on a spurious prior criminal conviction. Since then, he has been organizing countrywide anti-corruption rallies and supporting opposition candidates, including in Siberia where he was poisoned. 

Mr. Navalny campaigned against the July 2020 constitutional amendments put forward by Mr. Putin, which he called a “coup” designed to make the former KGB agent the country’s  president for life.

Mr. Putin, who allegedly ordered the 2006 poisoning of former FSB officer and defector Alexander Litvinenko in London with Polonium-210, is the longest serving Russian leader since Stalin, the ruthless dictator who ordered the assassination of his rival Leon Trotsky in 1940 with an ice axe. Mr. Putin was a KGB officer who rose to become the director of Russia’s ruthless Federal Security Service (FSB) under ailing predecessor Boris Yeltsin. He is a sophisticated practitioner of espionage and asymmetric warfare against foreign and domestic enemies.

Mr. Putin must have been concerned about his drop in popularity, caused by a string of reverses: the Kremlin’s lackluster response to COVID-19 and the resulting economic recession; ongoing protests, including in eastern region of Khabarovsk after Mr. Putin replaced the popular governor; and a burgeoning populist uprising in Belarus, with tens of thousands of citizens defying warnings from the military and flooding into the capital city of Minsk to demonstrate near the residence of President Alexander Lukashenko, who claimed a landslide victory in early August elections widely denounced as fraudulent.  

Mr. Navalny represents an existential threat to Mr. Putin, but not because he has the throw-weight to take control of the Kremlin. If there is one thing Mr. Putin has in the forefront of his calculus, it is example of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he memorably called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Mr. Putin does not want a domestic rival powerful and popular enough to take advantage of any perceived Kremlin weaknesses, weaknesses which Mr. Navalny’s own protest movement have exposed. Acutely aware of the KGB’s failed 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Putin has been ruthless with his enemies to ensure suitably submissive behavior from his supporters, especially the security services.

The Kremlin has predictably denied Mr. Navalny had been poisoned. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament, claimed German intelligence agents may have poisoned Mr. Navalny. In a classic KGB ploy of denying everything and making wild counteraccusations, Mr. Volodin said European parliaments should authorize investigations to determine whether their security services were responsible for Mr. Navalny’s near-assassination. 

Mr. Putin has no shame when it comes to the art of disinformation, no matter how absurd the charge. He has leveled accusations against private individuals and foreign governments and, in a recent call with French President Emmanuel Macron, even asserted that Mr. Navalny had somehow poisoned himself.

For the Russian leader, there is nothing contradictory about floating the most preposterous conspiracy theories if they can serve as a fig leaf to countries looking for a reason not to enact additional sanctions against his regime. Russia is already facing massive sanctions resulting from its invasion of Ukraine, illegal annexation of Crimea and its interference in U.S. elections. Mr. Putin has tried to take the public relations sting out of the sanctions by portraying himself as the defender of Russia’s besieged fortress.

Mr. Putin, who emphasized during his U.N. speech last month that ending “illegitimate sanctions” against Russia would somehow lift the global economy out of the COVID-19 recession, is betting the West will sacrifice its principles once again in the interest of profitable commerce with his brutal regime. Instead, the U.S. and our allies around the world should instead hold the Kremlin accountable for its multifarious attacks before even considering the notion of economic relief. 

• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.

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