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What Does Putin Stand to Gain (and Lose) by Going After Navalny?

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has survived his brush with a Russian nerve agent. But the attempt on his life says a lot about what Russia has become.

A gathering in support of Alexei Navalny
Police officers check the documents of a man in St. Petersburg, holding a placard with an image of Alexei Navalny during a gathering to express support for the opposition leader on Aug. 20. Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

In the three weeks since Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny fell violently ill on a flight to Moscow, any pretense that this was anything other than a state-sponsored assassination attempt has worn increasingly thin. After Navalny was airlifted from the Siberian city of Omsk to Berlin for treatment, German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week announced that he had been poisoned with Novichok, the same military-grade nerve agent used by Russian intelligence operatives to poison Sergei Skripal in England in 2018. 

And Russia is upping the ante: Navalny appears to have been poisoned by a previously unknown and deadlier strain of the nerve agent in an attack that could have only been ordered by the Kremlin, according to a report in the German weekly Der Zeit.

While Navalny is expected to survive this attempt on his life, significant questions remain as to why the decision was made to poison the country’s best-known opposition politician, what this says about the direction Russia is headed, and what price it may pay as Western leaders, most notably Merkel, weigh their response. 

Why poison Navalny? 

Kremlin critics and opposition politicians have all too often been poisoned or even murdered, but until last month Navalny’s very survival was conspicuous. At an opposition event in the city of Tomsk the night before he was poisoned, Navalny himself addressed this very issue. “If they kill me, it will just create more problems for those in power, just as was the case with Nemtsov,” he said, according to Der Spiegel. Navalny was referring to opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down near the Kremlin in 2015. 

“With the killing of Nemtsov, Russia became a country where members of the opposition die violently,” said Sam Greene, the director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London. “I think if you see [Navalny’s poisoning] as a major shift, you haven’t been paying attention.” 

But why now?

Navalny was for a long time considered to be too famous and too popular to be quietly dispatched. As news broke that he had been poisoned, the analyst Tatiana Stanovaya noted that his death was seen as a “nightmare scenario” in the Kremlin, one that risked triggering mass protests against the regime, which has become increasingly unpopular in recent years. 

But it seems that calculus shifted in the wake of a constitutional referendum earlier this year, which gave Russian President Vladimir Putin the ability to run for two more terms—signaling a retreat from even the trappings of democracy.

“After constitutional reform we are dealing with a  completely new political regime. This regime is much more conservative, less tolerant, more repressive,” said Stanovaya, the founder of the political analysis firm R. Politik. “After this we can expect things which we couldn’t expect before from Putin’s regime,” she said. 

The constitutional referendum made it clear for the Kremlin that domestic politics was becoming more problematic, Greene said. Amid growing impatience with Putin and his party, and a haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic, “the usual ideological levers and wedges aren’t working,” Greene said. “That led to an impulse in the Kremlin to clear the decks of challengers.”

Shortly after the referendum, Sergei Furgal, a popular regional governor, was arrested and charged with orchestrating multiple murders in the mid-2000s, a move seen as politically motivated that sparked weeks of protests in the far-east region of Khabarovsk. Several other opposition politicians, activists, and journalists were arrested in Russia in the wake of the referendum, a sign of a widening crackdown. 

Why does Navalny get under the Kremlin’s skin?

As Russia’s best-known and most effective opposition politician, Navalny was once described as the man Putin fears the most. Homing in on one of the most hot-button issues for Russian voters, Navalny and his team have repeatedly exposed the dazzling corruption of some of Russia’s most senior politicians. After a 2017 investigation alleged that then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had used $1 billion in bribes to buy lavish properties, it triggered nationwide protests in the Russian heartland traditionally thought to form the core of Putin’s base. 

Until recently, the Kremlin appeared to tolerate a degree of protest from Moscow’s liberals—and even sought to use it against them. “Before 2017, the Kremlin’s narrative about the opposition was that, ‘Okay, guys, you may have some fans among Moscow hipsters and among 2 percent or 3 percent of the well-educated middle-class urban dwellers,’” said Leonid Volkov, campaign manager for Navalny’s attempted run in the 2018 presidential elections, speaking at an online event hosted by the Wilson Center on Wednesday. 

“But the real Mother Russia outside of the Moscow peripheral road doesn’t love you, doesn’t like you, doesn’t know you, doesn’t want to do anything with you.” 

In 2017, Navalny made a conscious effort to expand his reach, holding dozens of rallies across the country and opening a network of regional campaign offices, Volkov said. Although he was eventually barred from running against Putin, many of those regional offices became local hubs supporting activists and opposition politicians, and conducting anti-corruption investigations. 

While Navalny himself has been prevented from running for office, he has still been able to use his platform to tip the scales in favor of other opposition politicians. In 2018 he unveiled a new initiative known as Smart Vote, a system of tactical voting that seeks to unite protest and opposition votes around the one candidate in each race deemed to have the best chance of beating politicians from Putin’s United Russia party. In local elections in Moscow last year, pro-Kremlin candidates suffered significant losses, as their number of seats shrank from 40 to 25 out of a possible 45. Navalny hailed the results as a success for the Smart Vote system.

But even prior to the constitutional referendum vote, the authorities were closing in on Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Last September, security services raided hundreds of homes and offices of activists in over 40 towns and cities across the country as part of a criminal anti-corruption investigation of the foundation. Navalny eventually closed the foundation in July after being sued by the subjects of his investigations, including firms owned by Putin cronies. 

In an opinion poll released by independent Russian pollster the Levada Center, respondents were asked to name which public figures most inspired them. While 8 percent of people said Putin, Navalny came in second with 4 percent—and was first among people aged 40 to 54. “These are quite amazing figures given the stance of Russian official media toward [Navalny] during the last 10 years or more,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, an  associate fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, speaking at the Wilson Center event. 

What price, if any, will Russia pay?

It’s not yet clear. After Novichok was used against Skripal, over 20 countries followed Britain’s lead in expelling dozens of Russian diplomats in what then-British Prime Minister Theresa May described as the largest collective expulsion of suspected Russian intelligence officers in history. Merkel has faced growing calls, including from within her own party, to halt construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, a project long backed by Germany and that is over 90 percent complete. And on Monday, a version of the Magnitsky Act, which could impose sanctions on human rights abusers and corrupt officials abroad, was introduced in the German Bundestag; if passed, it could provide Germany with another avenue to respond to future Russian misdeeds. 

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington was weighing how to respond, noting that there was a “substantial chance” that the order to poison Navalny came from senior Russian officials. Only time will tell if Navalny’s poisoning, unlike so many of Russia’s other misdeeds, will finally force a tougher international reaction.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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